21 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Her Gynecologist

Going to the gynecologist for your annual exam is just as important as seeing your regular doctor for routine checkups, yet, for some reason, there is a sense of awkwardness and discomfort many women experience when it comes time to see their gyno. These feelings can often lead to not discussing any actual issues or concerns, resulting in leaving their appointment feeling frustrated and potentially more worried than before they arrived.

Many women often discount their medical concerns, dismissing any unusual bleeding or pain they're experiencing because they want to avoid going to the gynecologist or they've historically been made to feel that these issues are just part of being a woman. Others are simply unaware of how important an annual gynecologist visit is, especially if they're sexually active. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, women should see the gynecologist annually at the age of 21 as a means of assessing their reproductive health. They should also not hesitate to make an appointment any time they experience anything out of the ordinary.

Women should begin seeing a gynecologist between the ages of 11 and 15 years old, per the Mayo Clinic, whether they are sexually active or not. While many adults assume a visit to the gynecologist is simply to get a pap smear, there are countless other reasons for a visit to this specialist. It can be overwhelming to discuss many of the very personal health issues that may have brought you to make an appointment with your gynecologist, but it's important to be open and honest. However, if your doctor makes you feel uncomfortable, it's time to find a new gynecologist. In fact, here are 21 questions every woman should feel confident in asking her gynecologist.

When should I get a pap smear?

You may assume if you're sexually active that you would receive a pap smear at your annual gynecology appointment, but that isn't the case if you're under the age of 21. Regardless of whether you are sexually active or not, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that women don't typically begin their pap smear screening until the age of 21. Although pap smears were once performed annually, the recommendation now is to have one every three years, if your results continue to be normal, until the age of 29. Once you reach 30, your doctor will probably also test you for the HPV virus, per the Mayo Clinic.

Women between the ages of 30 and 65 may also be given the option of having a pap test once every five years. However, if you have any risk factors such as abnormal pap smears in the past, a weakened immune system, specific health concerns, or a family history of cancer, your doctor may suggest you get a pap smear more frequently. You shouldn't hesitate to discuss any health concerns or family history with your doctor to determine a pap smear schedule that will work best for your health.

How often should I menstruate?

"Normal" is a subjective term when it comes to a menstrual cycle because every woman is different, but the average menstrual cycle for women in their 20s and 30s is typically 28 days. That means that 28 days will elapse from the first day of your cycle until the first day of your following cycle. 

As a general rule, your period can last anywhere from two to seven days, according to Allina Health. If you've noticed that your period is coming earlier or longer than 28 days, that doesn't necessarily mean there's cause for concern. Per the Cleveland Clinic, while 28 days is a typical cycle, it's not uncommon for a woman's cycle to be anywhere from 21 to 35 days long. But if that timing is irregular and different every month, you should mention it to your gynecologist.

Age can also affect your menstrual cycle. Once a woman reaches her late 30s and early 40s, she may begin to experience signs of perimenopause or early menopause which can greatly affect how often she menstruates, the flow of her period, and the length of her period. It can be frustrating to have to deal with irregular or heavy periods, especially after years of having a consistent cycle, so if you're concerned or feel that something just isn't right, don't hesitate to reach out to your gynecologist.

When should I be concerned about vaginal discharge?

Of the myriad health issues women often don't discuss with their gynecologists out of fear of embarrassment, vaginal discharge is near the top of the list. You can save yourself a lot of anxiety and worry about whether your vaginal discharge is cause for alarm by speaking openly about any concerns with your doctor. 

A healthy vagina will create a cloudy white discharge that can, according to Monistat, change in consistency depending on where you are in your cycle. Your age, pregnancy, stress, birth control pills, and other factors can also impact what your vaginal discharge looks like. However, there are times when your vaginal discharge can be signaling that something is wrong. If you've noticed a change in color or a smell to your discharge, as well as the sudden occurrence of any pain, it could be a sign of an infection, STI, or other health issues (via Observer). 

So, while having a vaginal discharge is completely normal because it's how your vagina rids the body of old cells, a change in this discharge could be telling you that there's something happening that may require medical attention. You shouldn't hesitate to reach out to your doctor if you have concerns about your vaginal discharge, especially if you're pregnant.

Should I be doing a breast self-exam?

Just because you're younger or have no history of breast cancer in your family doesn't mean you shouldn't be performing monthly breast self-exams. Speaking to your gynecologist about your breast health is important and they can confirm early detection is crucial for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. One study published in the Journal of Women's Health found that 64% of women self-detected their breast cancer. 

You should be doing your breast self-exam monthly, after your period, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If your period is irregular or you've stopped menstruating, you should pick a set day each month to do the exam so that it's easy to remember. Your gynecologist can instruct you on how to properly conduct a self-exam as well as what is normal or what may necessitate a call to your doctor. 

The more you do your own self-exam, the more in tune you will become with your body and the more aware you are when you detect something that may be out of the norm. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a five-year 99% survival rate when breast cancer is found in the early, localized stage.

When should I get tested for an STI?

If you think you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection or are experiencing any potential symptoms, there can be feelings of anxiousness, shame, and embarrassment that may keep you from calling your doctor immediately. The reality is that STIs are incredibly common, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that one in five people have or have had an STI. There is no shame in getting tested and the sooner you receive treatment the better. 

Many STIs don't have any symptoms, so if you think you've been exposed, it's important to contact your doctor immediately. If left untreated, these infections can cause prolonged health issues, and you may transmit the infection unknowingly to others. According to Planned Parenthood, some symptoms of a potential STI include sores or bumps on and around your genitals, thighs, or butt cheeks, abnormal discharge from your vagina, burning when you pee and/or frequent urination, itching, pain, irritation, and/or swelling in your vagina, vulva, or anus, as well as flu-like symptoms. 

Just because you have one or more of these symptoms doesn't mean you have an STI but letting your gynecologist know what is happening with your body can help to determine whether you should be tested.

Why are my periods so heavy?

Every woman's flow is different, but a heavy flow can be caused by a few factors including hormones, fibroids, or a thicker uterine lining. If you've been experiencing a heavier flow than you think is normal, it's worth discussing it with your gynecologist. According to Dr. Cindy Basinski, a board-certified urogynecologist who discussed period health with Women's Health, a heavy period is when a woman loses about 5 tablespoons of blood per cycle, not including any clots. She goes on to explain that bleeding for more than seven days also indicates you're probably a heavy bleeder or that you need to change your tampon or pad every two hours. 

While heavy periods aren't necessarily uncommon, they can really be disruptive to your daily activities and ruin your clothes and bedding. Some women may even suffer from menorrhagia which is, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, when a woman suffers from abnormally heavy or prolonged bleeding. The good news is that women do have options when it comes to dealing with a heavy period, which is why it's important to let your gynecologist know if this is something you're dealing with. Together, you can discuss the safest options available to help give you some relief as well as determine whether your heavy flow is the result of an underlying issue.

Is the birth control pill safe

The birth control pill is one of the most used forms of birth control available, but if you're considering going on the pill, you should discuss with your doctor whether it's safe for you. While the pill is generally considered safe for most people, it isn't without potential side effects. 

According to Planned Parenthood, although the risks are low, the pill can, in some cases, cause a heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and liver tumors. Healthline adds that if you smoke and/or are over the age of 35, your doctor may also want you to choose a different method of birth control, as these factors increase those risks. 

Your health history can play a vital role in whether or not your doctor will consider a hormonal birth control pill safe for you or not, which is why it's really important to discuss your current medical state as well as medical history before going on the pill. Your doctor may not want you on birth control pills if you're taking certain medicines that may impact its effectiveness, if you suffer from depression, have diabetes or high cholesterol, or have any other health concerns. You and your doctor can make the best decision together as to whether or not the birth control pill is safe for you.

What are my birth control options

Many women aren't aware of the multitude of birth control methods that are available to them because they don't ask their doctor about their options. Not everyone can or wants to use a hormonal birth control method like the pill, which is why it's important to ask about the varieties of options available to you.

Together with your doctor, you can discuss any concerns you may have and whether you want to use the pill or an alternative like an IUD, condoms, a diaphragm, sponge, implant, or shot, just to name a few options. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the only method of birth control that is 100% effective is abstinence, which is why it's sometimes best to double up on your birth control method, like using the pill and condoms together. Not only do condoms help protect against unwanted pregnancy but they also help to prevent sexually transmitted infections. Your doctor can help advise you on the most effective means of birth control for your health and lifestyle, including whether you're looking for a longer-term or shorter-term solution and if taking a daily pill is convenient for you.

What could be causing pain in my pelvic region

It is an unfortunate reality that many women don't speak to their doctors when they're experiencing pain because it is often dismissed as common and not serious. Pain in the pelvic region can be caused by any number of issues both serious and not serious, which is why it's important to make a doctor's appointment if this is something you're dealing with. 

According to Healthgrades, the cause of pelvic pain could be a gynecologic issue such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, scar tissue, or adhesions, or it could be related to other organs near the pelvic region. Your gynecologist can help pinpoint the origin of the pain and then help prescribe treatment or refer to you a different specialist that can help. Some causes of pelvic pain are quite serious, like ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, infection, and appendicitis, per Johns Hopkins Medicine, while other causes may be as common as period cramps. 

Your doctor can help you understand the cause of your pain and let you know if it is anything to be worried about. Just because pelvic pain may be common doesn't mean that you should dismiss it if you're suffering.

Should I be concerned about how I smell?

Women are conditioned to think that they should be odorless when, in fact, this is not the case. Because what you eat, what you wear, and whether you're participating in any sort of activity can all impact how your vagina smells, it's completely normal to wonder if you should be concerned about any odor that you may smell.

As per Ochsner Heath, your vagina is "a complex ecosystem with various bacteria, as well as different secretions," so a mild odor is perfectly normal. If you've noticed a concerning change in how you smell or a stronger odor than usual, that may be time to talk to your doctor. According to Healthline, although changes in how your vagina smells is common, if you're alarmed by the smell and you are also experiencing symptoms such as itching or burning, pain, pain during sex, thick, cottage cheese discharge, or vaginal bleeding unrelated to your period, the smell could definitely be a sign that you need to see your doctor. Causes can range from a forgotten tampon to bacterial vaginosis. Your doctor will be able to address your concerns and, if necessary, provide treatment.

Why do I leak when I laugh or sneeze?

Stress incontinence is a reality for many women, but it doesn't have to be. If you leak urine when you laugh, sneeze, or cough, you may suffer from stress incontinence. Pregnancy and childbirth, menstruation, menopause, pelvic surgery, problems with muscles in the bladder and the urethra, and weakened muscles around the bladder can all contribute to stress incontinence, according to WebMD

The good news is that there are exercises you can do to help prevent these leaks, including Kegels. Exercises that specifically target the pelvic floor, including your bladder, uterus, and bowels when practiced regularly can make a huge difference when it comes to leaks. Jessica Azzinaro, D.P.T., a pelvic floor physical therapist, explains to the University of Miami Health System the importance of doing pelvic floor exercises correctly. "A pelvic floor physical therapist is trained to help the patient identify and isolate the muscles that need strengthening," she said. "It's important that women do the exercises correctly and consistently. If done incorrectly, the exercises could make the problem worse." Your gynecologist can help you address these leaks and give you exercises to try to help prevent possible surgery.

Can I get a pap smear if I'm on my period?

Often when you schedule your pap smear it's so far in advance that you're not exactly sure when your period will be, and you just hope that you won't have it on the day of your appointment. But if you do have your period on the day of your pap smear, you may be wondering if that means you should reschedule. While technically yes, you can get a pap smear while having your period, there is the chance that the blood can alter your results, according to Healthline.

Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics at the Yale University School of Medicine, told Health that it's probably best to wait until you're no longer on your period to get your pap done, especially if you have heavy periods. "A lot of blood might obscure some of the details of the cells, which may make it hard to read," she noted. This is often a matter of personal comfort as well. Your doctor will probably conduct a pelvic exam at the same time as your pap smear, which could be affected if you're on your period. If you do end up having your period during your appointment time, check with your doctor first to see if they would rather you reschedule.

Why is sex sometimes painful

According to Women's Healthcare of Princeton, three out of four women will experience pain during sex at some point in their lives, showing just how common this issue is. Pain during sex can range from a dull throb to shooting pain to a burning sensation, and it can be felt in your vagina, lower back, general pelvic region, or uterus. 

Physical, emotional, and gynecological problems can all contribute to pain during sex so it's important to ask your doctor to help discover any potential causes. Hormones, which can affect your body's natural lubrication abilities and can fluctuate based on any number of issues, can cause painful sex, as can pelvic floor issues, anxiety, menopause, and vaginismus. 

Sex is supposed to be enjoyable, and when it isn't and instead causes you pain, it can cause even more stress and anxiety. Thankfully, discovering the cause is the first step in treating the pain. Your doctor can help get to the root of the problem through a physical exam, as well as asking the right questions about how and when you're experiencing pain.

When should I be concerned about itching down there?

It can be incredibly distracting and sometimes embarrassing if you're dealing with an itchy vagina and vulva, but it's a very common issue many women deal with. Katharine O'Connell White, M.D., an OBGYN and associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University, explained to Women's Health that the cause of itching is often as simple as your skin being irritated by laundry detergent residue, wearing clothing that is too tight, a menstrual pad irritating your skin, or a lubricant irritating you.

However, if the itching persists, it may be time to reach out to your doctor to see if there is a health issue causing the discomfort, like an STI or UTI. Skin conditions like eczema can cause your vulva to itch, as can using a new soap or detergent or even a new feminine hygiene product. Yeast infections can cause itchiness as can bacterial vaginosis, but as Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University, noted to Women's Health, this tends to also result in other symptoms, like a change in discharge and strong odor. 

Experts advise that if the itching persists or if it's accompanied by an abnormal vaginal discharge, any sort of rash or lumps, burning or pain, changes in the appearance of the vulvar skin, or swelling of the labia minora, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

When should I get my first mammogram?

We know that early detection is key when it comes to beating breast cancer. If you're approaching the age of 40 or are already in your 40s, you should be asking your gynecologist for a mammogram referral if they haven't given you one already. 

According to the American Cancer Society, women between the ages of 40 and 44 should have the option to begin their annual mammogram screening and, by the age of 45, should be screened annually. Breast oncologist Dr. Andrea Silber explained to Yale Medicine that women under 40 "are generally too young to begin screening unless they have a mutation, a genetic reason or have physical symptoms, such as a mass or other breast changes." This is why conducting breast self-exams from a young age is so important. 

If you're younger than 40 and notice any changes or abnormalities in your breast you can discuss further investigation with your doctor. Yale Medicine radiologist Liva Andrejeva-Wright, M.D. also added, "We recommend mammogram screening to start no earlier than age 40 and no later than age 50 for women of average risk for breast cancer and continue through to at least age 74."

Are douches safe?

Douching has been around for a very long time. It was the most popular form of birth control from 1940 to 1960, per Mother Jones, with Lysol being the most popular brand at the time. Before the pill and condoms were commonplace as forms of birth control, women thought that using a douche after sex was an effective means of preventing pregnancy. 

By the 1980s, according to The Atlantic, doctors finally began to realize just how bad douching was for a woman's body. According to the Office on Women's Health, douches today are typically made of water and vinegar, baking soda, and iodine. Although doctors don't recommend douching, it is estimated that one in five women between the ages of 15 and 44 do. 

Gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, who has waged a social media war with "wellness experts" like Gwyneth Paltrow who promote douching, has been an outspoken advocate against the practice. "Douching, no matter what you're douching with, is like cigarettes for your vagina — that's how you should think of it," she explained to HuffPost U.K. "It offers absolutely no health benefits, yet people are adopting it as a lifestyle practice." In fact, douching can be detrimental to your vaginal health. "We know that women who douche have a much higher risk of contracting HIV or gonorrhea if they're exposed because it's damaging your first line of defenses," Gunter added. "If you douche — even if you douche with water — you also have a higher risk of bacterial vaginosis."

When should you first see a gynecologist?

Many teens or young women first visit the gynecologist to discuss going on birth control or if they've recently become sexually active, but experts recommend that girls as young as 13 should be seeing a specialist. According to Yale Medicine, ages 13 through 15 is the ideal time for a girl's first trip to the gynecologist because this is when they are experiencing a lot of physical changes. During this exam, the patient can discuss any questions they may have, including any issues around their period or concerns with development. This is also a time to discuss birth control options as well as hormonal regulator options to help deal with period issues. 

Most gynecologists won't perform a pap smear until a woman is 21, so although a teen may see a gynecologist, they probably won't have a pelvic exam unless the doctor feels it's warranted. Lots of girls at this age struggle with issues like heavy or irregular periods, not having yet gotten their period yet, and having questions about their breast health or development, sexual activity, and gender identity. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists echoes this age recommendation, adding that it's important for girls to build a trusting relationship with their gynecologist from an early age so they feel comfortable discussing any issues they have as they get older.

Why is my sex drive so low?

Everyone's sex drive is different, but if you've noticed that yours has tanked recently, or you've never really had a high libido you should talk to your doctor about it, especially if it's bothering you or having an adverse effect on your relationship or mental health. "Low sex drive in women is common and can be caused by many things," Dr. Sabrina Whitehurst, an OBGYN at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital, explained. "But finding the root cause can lead to effective treatment — often, it's as simple as changing a medication you're taking." 

In fact, there are many reasons your sex drive may be low including hormonal birth control, age, anxiety, depression, or issues in your relationship. Thankfully there are a number of ways to help treat your low sex drive, and your gynecologist is the right person to help pinpoint the cause and the subsequent treatment. "If your low libido is bothering you, it's worth talking to your doctor about," Dr. Whitehurst added.

Should I be concerned about a bump on my vulva?

Women are conditioned to be on high alert for any out-of-the-ordinary bumps or lumps anywhere on their bodies, so it can definitely be alarming if you find a bump on your vulva. While bumps can be cause for concern, there are other reasons you may find a bump down there. If you've shaved your vulva or recently had some other form of hair removal, you could have an ingrown hair or infected hair follicle, according to Kansas City OBGYN. A bump could also be a sign of a vaginal cyst or a pimple, but it could also be a sign of an STI like herpes or genital warts. Although rare, a bump could also be an indication of cancer. 

If you're worried about a bump, the discharge from the bump contains pus or blood, or you have other symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease, you should contact your doctor, according to Healthline. Doing routine self-exams of your pelvic area is as important as doing breast self-exams so that you're always aware if there is something new or out of the ordinary.

Are my mood swings normal?

Anxiety, bloating, depression, and mood swings are common experiences for women prior to getting their period. Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, most commonly occurs about a week or two before your period is due, according to Everyday Health. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that 85% of women experience at least one symptom of PMS, thanks to these hormone fluctuations. However, if your mood swings are extreme, if you find yourself easily depressed, or if you have trouble eating or sleeping, you may be experiencing something more than typical PMS, per Pacific Gynecology

The good news is that you're not alone and you can find ways to get through these symptoms. The bad news is that it can get worse. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a form of severe PMS. Fortunately, these symptoms should go away as your cycle ends, but if they don't, you should be speaking with your gynecologist because there may be other issues, like undiagnosed depression, causing your mood swings.

Can I have sex during my period?

The short answer is yes, absolutely, as long as you and your partner are comfortable with it. Your period can send your hormones into overdrive, ramping up your sex drive during your menstrual cycle. According to Planned Parenthood, having an orgasm can even help alleviate period cramps. But while sex during your period is perfectly safe, it is important to know that just because you're on your period doesn't mean you can't get pregnant. It's just as important to use birth control during your period as it is when you don't have your period, as well as using condoms to help prevent any potential spread of STIs. 

And while these hormone fluctuations may make some women more amorous during their period, they can make sex uncomfortable for others, per Everyday Health. If this is the case for you, there are birth control options that can impact the duration of your period as well as your flow. Never be embarrassed about speaking openly with your gynecologist about matters that concern you, especially if you have specific questions. They're there to help you.