As long as you're getting a routine vaginal exam/Pap smear, it is not necessary to do a vaginal self-exam. However, you may want to check for unusual changes if you miss your regular checkup. If you do find a problem, you can start treatment sooner, and you’ll more likely have a better outcome.
Picture of a Vagina
The Inside of a Vagina
The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal with a soft, flexible lining that provides lubrication and sensation. The vagina connects the uterus to the outside world. The vulva and labia form the entrance, and the cervix of the uterus protrudes into the vagina, forming the interior end.
The vagina receives the penis during sexual intercourse and also serves as a conduit for menstrual flow from the uterus. During childbirth, the baby passes through the vagina (birth canal).
The hymen is a thin membrane of tissue that surrounds and narrows the vaginal opening. It may be torn or ruptured by sexual activity or by exercise.
What to Look For
A self-exam isn’t as in-depth as a pelvic exam performed by your gynecologist. You should still have routine pelvic exams. These check for ovarian cysts, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), uterine fibroids, early-stage cancer, and other signs of health problems.
But a self-exam may help you find signs of an STD or changes to your vulva (the outer part of your genitals) that could signal other health problems. Spots, sores, or bumps could be early signs of vulvar cancer and should be checked by your doctor. A more involved self-exam could also help you detect changes to your vaginal wall and possibly your cervix.
How Do I Do a Vaginal Self-Exam?
You can do it any time, but it’s best when you’re between periods. Don’t use any vaginal creams or douches for at least 24 hours before doing the exam.
Here are some things that will help:
- A handheld mirror
- A flashlight or other small light
- A detailed diagram of the genitals with all the parts labeled (so you'll know what you’re looking at)
- Pillows and a towel
Make sure your hands are clean or that you’re wearing sterile gloves. Be mindful of your fingernails.
Remove your clothes from the waist down. Sit on your bed or on a towel on the floor against a wall with your back propped up by pillows. Pull your feet toward your butt and spread your legs.
Relax your pelvic muscles. Then examine the parts of the vulva: the clitoris and the outer and inner labia. Take note of the color and size of each part, so if anything changes you’ll notice it easily. You may need to pull back slightly on the hood of the clitoris. You might also have to spread apart your pubic hair to get a clear view of the area.
To do a more complete self-exam, gently spread the labia apart and angle the mirror and light so you can see into the vagina. The walls should be pinkish in color. If you’re comfortable, place your finger inside your vagina and feel along the vaginal wall. You may notice it feels a little like the roof of your mouth. If you push a little farther, you may feel your cervix. It feels like the tip of your nose.
If you’re not comfortable with this much probing, it’s OK. You can do a simple visual inspection. Just be sure you see your gynecologist for your regular pelvic exams. How often you have pelvic exams may depend on your age, health history, and other factors. Ask your doctor about what’s right for you.
When to Call a Doctor
If, during your vaginal self-exam, you see any genital warts, sores, bumps, spots, or unusual coloration, make an appointment to see your doctor. The same is true if you notice a smelly discharge. A small amount of non-smelly discharge is normal. It might be lighter or heavier, depending on where you are in your cycle.
If you do find a problem, remember: The earlier it’s diagnosed and treated, the sooner you’ll feel better and find peace of mind.