A trip to the gynecologist is rarely a fun time. We’ve all been there: dreading our annual visit and giving the doctor short answers in an effort to get out the door as fast as possible. But by making the process go more quickly, we may also neglect to mention certain health issues that are probably worth bringing up.
The same goes for those special visits, where we muster up the courage to give our gyno a call because there’s something going on *down there*. Even after scheduling an appointment, we may be tempted to minimize our problems or maybe even tell a little white lie to avoid embarrassment, judgment, or a prolonged conversation.
In reality, it seems counterproductive to lie to your doctor. They’re only there to make sure you’re feeling your best, right? Thankfully, you can avoid unnecessary office visits by recognizing symptoms of certain common health concerns.
Here are some tell-tale signs that may mean it’s time for a visit to the good ol’ gynecologist:
Heavy, painful periods
Maybe your periods started out normal and have only recently gotten worse. Or you’re among the many women who have just accepted periods that come with intense pain and excessive bleeding. These menstrual changes can be temporary due to stress or a major life change, like a move or a new job.
But it’s cause for concern if this happens for more than one or two cycles and if these issues cause you to miss time at work, school, or social activities. It’s time to talk to your doctor if your period is irregular and causes:
- Intense pain typically in the abdomen, pelvis, and lower back
- Numbness and tingling in the legs
- Uncomfortable sensations with bowel movements or urination
- Constipation, diarrhea, and significant bloating
These can be due to chronic conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which both involve abnormal hormone levels that cause thickening of the uterus and other menstrual changes. Pain in the pelvic and abdominal region can also be attributed to a sexually transmitted infection called pelvic inflammatory disorder, also known as PID.
All discharge smells to some extent. After so many years, we usually become pretty good at knowing our bodies and recognizing what is or isn’t normal for us. Either you’re seeing more discharge than usual or it just smells different. Again, this could be due to something simple like your underwear isn’t breathable enough, you douche, or your new soap doesn’t agree with you. But if your discharge checks any of the following boxes, it may be worth looking into:
- Yellow or green in color
- Thick with chunks or clots
- Smells foul
- Vaginal itching, swelling, and discomfort
If your discharge smells fishy and is an odd color, then it could be a sign of an overgrowth called bacterial vaginosis. This is treated with a prescription cream to be applied to the vagina or antibiotics taken as pills. Excess discharge without much smell can be a sign of a different issue, which is often a yeast infection. Yeast infections respond well to anti-fungals taken orally.
Discharge is also one of the main signs of a sexually transmitted infection such as trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Unlike what most people believe, these are very easy to treat and cure with just a short course of antibiotics taken as pills.
It’s safe to say that most of us don’t act like ourselves when it’s that time of the month. But it’s not normal when your cycle causes major mood changes that disrupt the day-to-day flow of activities. If your period causes any of the following symptoms, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor:
- Anger or high irritability
- Depressed mood
- Trouble focusing
- Overly critical thoughts about yourself
- Confusion and disorientation
- Crying spells
- High levels of anxiety or feeling overwhelmed, tense, or nervous
- Being highly sensitive to rejection
If you experience several of these symptoms in the days leading up to your period or during your period, you may have a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). This condition can come along with some of the earlier symptoms we’ve discussed or other issues like an irregular heartbeat or migraines.
Pain with sex
No one likes to experience problems during sex, and pain may just be top of the list. Pain with sex may seem obvious but there are a range of symptoms that indicate there are issues with the muscles in that area:
- Pain with penetration, sex, and thrusting
- Difficulty or discomfort when inserting a tampon or cup
- Discomfort and pressure with urination or bowel movements
- Throbbing, burning, or aching pain, starting during sex and lasting for up to several hours
These symptoms can be due to a cut or other injury to the outer layer of vaginal skin. Pain with sex can also be the result of a urinary tract infection (also known as a UTI), sexually transmitted infection, or even eczema in the genital area. Vaginismus is another potential cause. Vaginismus is tightness or spasms of the muscles in and around the vagina, called the pelvic floor muscles. UTIs and STIs are treated with antibiotics taken by mouth. Eczema may require someone to take steroids by mouth for swelling and irritation that may be present. This condition is also commonly treated by applying a prescription lotion to the outside of the vagina, which protects and moisturizes the skin.
How to prepare for your visit
The best way to take advantage of your visit is to be prepared. Jot down a few questions you might want to ask beforehand. It can be overwhelming to get information from a doctor so ask for clarification if you don’t understand something or if they’re talking too fast. You can request a print-out, which includes their visit notes of what you discussed. But this may not have all the details you need, so it’s a good idea to record some notes in your phone so you remember everything.
Follow the instructions exactly once you get home. This is especially important with medications such as antibiotics, which won’t be entirely effective unless you finish all the pills. If more questions come up, give them a call or reach out using your online patient portal. It’s always best to be informed.
They may have tips on how to prevent some of these issues from happening again, like avoiding douching, peeing after sex, or getting regular STI screenings. Be sure to take their advice so you don’t get the same symptoms again. For the sake of our happiness and health down below, it’s always a good thing when we can limit our gyno visits to once-yearly check-ups!
About the Author | Brittany Ferri PhD, OTR/L, CPRP
Brittany is an occupational therapist and founder of Simplicity of Health, a writing and consulting business focused on serving health-oriented organizations. She has written five books and over 250 client-facing publications educating the public about how to take better care of their health. Learn more at www.