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Feature Article

When Is It Time to See Your Gynecologist?

Regular OB/GYN care is important throughout all stages of a woman’s life. An annual checkup can help to keep you in good health by detecting disease and other health-related issues early.

OB/GYN encompasses two medical fields – obstetrics and gynecology. Obstetricians and gynecologists specialize in all facets of female reproductive health, including:

  • Menstrual cycles.
  • Family planning & birth control.
  • Pregnancy & childbirth.
  • Infertility issues.
  • Hormonal disorders.
  • Breast disease.
  • Sexually transmitted infections.
  • Perimenopause and menopause.
  • Urinary issues.

While there are providers who specialize in only obstetrics or gynecology, most OB/GYNs and midwifes offer both gynecologic and obstetric care.

“Women should begin to see an OB/GYN regularly for an annual exam at the age of 21,” said Jessica Mitchell, MD, with Samaritan Obstetrics & Gynecology in Corvallis.

While regular exams should begin at the age of 21, the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology recommend that women first see a female health practitioner around the time of their first period, which is typically between the ages of 13-15.

“If you are sexually active, it’s important to see an OB/GYN regularly to test for sexually transmitted diseases and to discuss relevant family planning and birth control options,” said Dr. Mitchell.

Annual Exams

Annual exams are for coordination of routine health maintenance and include age and risk appropriate screenings for cervical, breast, and colon cancer. Typically, a comprehensive physical exam, including a breast and pelvic exam, will be recommended.

“Breast exams help us to find lumps, enlarged lymph nodes, and changes in skin color, which can all indicate breast cancer is present,” said Dr. Mitchell. “During a pelvic exam, we check for infections, growths, and other abnormalities that may indicate a health issue.”

During your visit, your OB/GYN can also provide you with health-related education, counseling, and services based on your individual needs and stage of life.

Time an Initial Exam Around the First Period

“The first appointment with a gynecologist can be scary. Youth are often deterred from going to the gynecologist for fear of being required to have a pelvic exam,” said Dr. Mitchell. “This first appointment is about establishing trust, creating safety, and reinforcing to the patient that they are in control of what happens to their bodies.”

During the first appointment, doctors talk with patients about their personal and family health history, menstrual cycle, diet and exercise, and sexual activity. The physical exam is similar to routine exams performed by pediatricians.

“It is a wonderful opportunity to model and practice active consent with adolescents, which can help to facilitate healthy relationships beyond the medical setting,” said Dr. Mitchell.

It’s also an opportunity for doctors to answer questions a patient may have about the changes their body is going through during adolescence.

“For adolescents, a pelvic exam is typically only performed if a patient is having problems, such as heavy periods, pelvic pain, or vaginal discharge,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Even then, an exam only happens if the patient feels ready and wants to proceed with a pelvic examination.”

Other Times to See Your Provider

Dr. Mitchell encourages women not to wait for their annual visit and to schedule an appointment with an OB/GYN if they are experiencing any health concerns, including:

  • Abnormal or painful periods.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding.
  • Vaginal infections.
  • Pain or discomfort during sex.
  • Pain or lumps in your breasts.
  • Urinary issues or symptoms of a urinary tract infection.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

For more information, visit The American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists website.