It’s standard advice for women to talk with a gynecologist each year starting around age 15, to get a complete annual exam starting around age 21, and to be tested for cervical cancer every few years after that. But what if issues arise between appointments that have you a bit worried?
Your vaginal symptoms may not need any treatment. Or you may have a mild infection that is easy to treat. But without a gynecologist’s attention, even a mild infection can become a bigger problem. Also, vaginal symptoms sometimes are a sign of more serious conditions.
Here are nine symptoms and situations that warrant a trip to the gynecologist as soon as possible.
1. Painful periods. Monthly menstrual periods are really uncomfortable for many women. Lower belly cramps, sore breasts, and headaches can make those several days seem to last forever. But what if a period becomes even more painful, for a longer time? That could point to endometriosis (when extra tissue builds up outside of your uterus and causes bleeding and swelling) or fibroids (growths of cells and tissue in the uterus).
A gynecologist can diagnose these conditions and help with a treatment plan.
2. Vaginal bleeding. It’s normal for women to have spotting in the first few months after starting certain birth control methods and to experience heavier periods as they near menopause. But if you have unexpected vaginal bleeding -- for example, after menopause -- then you should see a gynecologist to find out why.
3. Starting or resuming sex. A gynecologist can make you aware of risks you should consider. For example, if you are under 18 or think you will have sex with more than one person, then you have a greater risk of getting cancer from an HPV infection. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus.
4. Bumps and blisters. If you see or feel a bump in your vagina or a blister in or around your labia (the skin folds around the vagina), then it’s a good idea to contact a gynecologist. The bump may be no more than an ingrown hair, but it also might be a genital wart, which is a small swelling caused by an STD. A small but painful blister that vanishes in a couple of weeks but returns could be a lesion that accompanies genital herpes.
A gynecologist can tell you whether the issue is minor or a condition that will need your careful attention for a long time.
5. Breast issues. A gynecologist can advise whether a new lump, sensitivity, or discharge in your breast is cause for concern about cancer. Most of the time, these conditions are not cancerous, especially if you haven’t gone through menopause.
6. Vaginal odor. Have you noticed a smell coming from your vagina that is particularly unpleasant? Or has your normal odor from that area changed in a way that isn’t so disagreeable but lasts for days? You should tell your gynecologist, even if the conversation makes you uncomfortable. You might be dealing with bacterial growth or a vaginal infection that needs prescription medication to cure.
7. Discomfort during sex. This is another topic that can be hard to discuss, but a gynecologist is very familiar with the issue. Say you are experiencing dryness during sex. If you are younger, your gynecologist may change your birth control prescription to include more of a sex hormone called estrogen. If you have already gone through menopause, your doctor may prescribe vaginal estrogen or recommend types of lubricants.
If you have pain or bleeding during sex, your gynecologist may suggest a lubricant, a different approach to sex, or another alternative.
8. Low libido. Sometimes a medical condition or medication you take reduces your interest in sex as a side effect. Work or family stress, as well as the length of your relationship, also can rob you of your desire. A gynecologist can diagnose why your libido has left and recommend steps to help restore it.
9. Incontinence. Women of any age can become incontinent (have accidental leakage of urine or feces), but it’s more common in the 50s and 60s and after menopause. Also, it can happen after childbirth, especially if the baby was large or the doctor needed to use forceps or a vacuum. A gynecologist can suggest treatments such as behavioral therapy or muscle relaxation, diet change, medication, or surgery, or refer you to a specialist.