The set of exams particular to women are the gynecological and reproductive health exams. These exams are an essential part of a woman’s annual preventative wellness check-up. Sometimes women choose to visit gynecology specialists for these exams, but primary care providers give these exams, too, as we do here at Catawba Valley Healthcare.
How Often Should You Have a Gynecological Exam?
Women should schedule well-woman and gynecological exams annually with their provider to ensure optimal health and early detection of any health issues. Consider scheduling your next year’s visit when checking out from your current visit to ensure you stay on schedule.
The following gynecological exams are critical to ensure your optimal health and wellbeing:
- Breast exam. Your provider will both visually and physically examine your breasts, feeling for any lumps or bumps and looking for any skin abnormalities that could indicate breast cancer or other breast tissue concerns.
- Mammogram. This exam typically begins after age 40 and consists of placing your breasts between two radiographic breastplates, which are then gently pressed together. This process flattens the breasts, providing images of the breast tissue used to detect breast cancer. Your provider will refer you to a mammogram center to have these x-rays taken.
- Pelvic exam. Your provider will visually and physically examine your vagina, vulva, and cervix, checking for abnormalities that might indicate cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, or any benign conditions. Your provider will perform a bimanual exam by inserting two gloved fingers of one hand into your vagina to feel both your uterus and ovaries, checking for any lumps or other abnormalities. While this exam may cause some feelings of pressure and some discomfort, it should not be painful.
- Pap and HPV test. These screenings detect the presence of any abnormal cellular activity in your cervical tissues. Your provider will insert a sterile swab into your vagina and gently brush it over your cervix to obtain a cell sample for analysis. This can feel a bit uncomfortable to some women, causing a feeling of cramping, but this procedure is critical for assessing cervical health.
Gynecological Conditions addressed at Catawba Valley Healthcare:
A menstrual cycle is defined as the monthly series of changes that a woman’s body goes through in preparation for a potential pregnancy. Each month, one of your ovaries usually releases an egg (ovulation). While ovulation is occurring, hormonal changes are also happening, preparing your uterus for the egg. However, if the released egg is not fertilized by a sperm, the lining of your uterus sheds its preparatory blood lining through your vaginal opening. This is called the menstrual period.
Your menstrual cycle is counted from the first day of one period (the beginning of bleeding) to the first day of your next period. Menstrual cycles are not the same for every woman. The number of days between menstrual blood flow can vary, occurring between 21 to 35 days. And flow can last anywhere between 2 to 7 days. Menstrual cycles tend to shorten and become more regular as you age.
Your menstrual cycle might be the same length every month, or it might vary a bit from month to month. The same is true for your menstrual flow. It might be light or heavy, painful, pain-free, long or short. In other words, “normal” can be what is normal for you. When your “normal” changes, you need to take note and contact your provider.
The use of certain types of contraception, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) or extended-cycle birth control pills, will alter your menstrual cycle from its usual course. Your provider will discuss this with you when choosing contraception.
Clinically Irregular Periods and Heavy Periods
A menstrual cycle that does not seem to follow any regular schedule or a cycle that lasts fewer than 24 days or longer than 32 is considered a clinically irregular period.
A period is considered an abnormally heavy period if it lasts for more than seven days or requires the use of multiple sanitary pads in addition to a tampon to manage blood flow.
If you experience unpredictable, irregular periods, pain, or are burdened with the management of heavy periods,our providers can offer treatment options to better regulate your cycle or alleviate pain to give you the comfort and predictability you need for the quality of life you want.
Vaginitis is inflammation of the vagina that can produce itching, pain, vaginal discharge, painful intercourse and urination, and light vaginal bleeding or spotting.
This condition can be caused by:
- An infection
- Change in your normal balance of vaginal bacteria
- Reduced estrogen levels after menopause
- Skin disorders
Many women at some time in their lives experience vaginitis. The most common types are:
- Yeast infections are usually caused by a naturally occurring fungus called Candida albicans. The main symptom is itching, but you may also have a white, thick discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
- Bacterial vaginosis results from a change in the normal bacteria found in your vagina that leads to overgrowth of other organisms. You develop a grayish-white, foul-smelling discharge that smells fishy.
- Trichomoniasis results from a parasite transmitted by sexual intercourse. You might develop a greenish-yellow, sometimes frothy discharge.
- Noninfectious vaginitis can result from douches, perfumed soaps, spermicidal products, vaginal sprays, or scented detergents that cause an allergic reaction in the vaginal tissues. Tampons and tissue paper can sometimes irritate vaginal tissues.
- Genitourinary syndrome of menopause (vaginal atrophy) results from reduced estrogen levels that cause the vaginal lining to thin, which in turn can result in burning, dryness, and other forms of vaginal irritation.
Treatment of vaginitis depends on the type of vaginitis you have. If you have vaginal discharge, vaginal pain, or other symptoms, contact your provider to be evaluated, treated, and to rule out a sexually transmitted infection.
Vaginal yeast infections (a form of vaginitis) are widespread among women, with around 75% of all women experiencing one at some point in their lives. Symptoms include an itching sensation in your vagina, painful urination, or a thick discharge.
Yeast infections occur when there is an overgrowth of a fungal organism, usually C. albicans, in your vagina. This fungus can also cause infections in other moist areas of your body, such as skin folds, nail beds, and the mouth (thrush). It can also cause diaper rash.
If you suffer with any of these symptoms, contact our primary care clinic for an appointment as soon as possible for immediate relief.
Urinary Tract Infection
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of your urinary system that includes your urethra, ureters, bladder, and kidneys. UTIs typically occur when bacteria (often E. coli) enter the urethra, travel through the urinary tract, and multiply in the bladder. The most common UTIs affect the lower urinary tract (bladder and urethra).
Women are at greater risk than men of developing a UTI due to their anatomy. Women have a shorter urethra than men, reducing the distance bacteria must travel to reach the bladder. Many women experience more than one infection during their lifetimes.
Although UTIs do not always present symptoms, when they do, they may include:
- A strong urge to urinate
- A burning sensation when urinating
- Urinating only in small amounts
- Urine that looks cloudy, red, bright pink, or cola-colored (a sign of blood in the urine)
- Strong-smelling urine
- Pelvic pain, especially in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone
When kidneys are infected by a UTI, the condition is serious and demands prompt attention. The following symptoms can present when there is an infection:
- Back or side (flank) pain
- High fever
- Shaking and chills
If you have any symptoms of a possible UTI, you should come in to see your provider and have a urine test. Antibiotics are typically prescribed, and your provider can discuss strategies to reduce the chances of contracting future ones.
PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder not uncommon among women of reproductive age. Symptoms include infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or high male hormone (androgen) levels. PCOS can cause the ovaries to build up numerous small pockets of fluids (follicles) that can lead to a failure to release eggs regularly. While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, early detection and treatment, in addition to weight loss in some cases, may reduce the risk of long-term complications such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.