What To Know Before You Go To The Gynecologist
We’ve been talking a lot about self-care these days, and that includes caring for your mental health, spiritual health, and physical health. But what about reproductive health? Speaking as both a medical professional in training and as a patient, I know that making a trip to see your gynecologist or primary care provider for the first time can be intimidating. Let’s demystify two of the most intimidating parts of the well-woman visit: the pap smear and birth control.
*Quick love note: this information is just that–information to help you feel prepped for your visit! This information is not intended to be medical advice, and as always, talk to your doctor if you have questions!*
What is a pap smear for, exactly?
A pap smear (short for Papanicolaou test) is a screening test for cervical cancer.
All this means is that we are trying to catch abnormal cells on your cervix before they become cancerous. To do this, your doctor will use a small brush to talk a sample from the cervix, then send them to a laboratory to be looked at under a microscope (literally smeared on a microscope slide, hence the name Pap smear). Cervical cancer used to be a major cause of death for women in the United States, but thanks to the Pap smear, incidence and deaths from cervical cancer have declined dramatically since the introduction of this test during the 1950s.
So what should I expect?
Your doctor will do the pap smear as part of the pelvic exam and use an instrument called a speculum to open the vagina and look at the cervix. The cervix is located at the top of the vagina and the bottom of the uterus. Once they look at the cervix, they’ll use a tiny soft brush to get a sample of the cervical cells.
How often do I need one?
Guidelines from the United States Preventive Task Force (USPSTF) recommend pap smears for women starting at age 21 and repeating the pap smear every 3 years (sooner if any results are abnormal). For women ages 30 to 60, the screening can be spaced out to every 5 years if human papilloma virus (HPV) co-testing is provided. These guidelines are meant for the general population, so make sure to check with your provider for their recommendations!
How do I prevent cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the US. Ways to avoid HPV infection include getting vaccinated against HPV, consistent condom use, and not smoking cigarettes.
What does contraception mean?
Contraception refers to prevention of pregnancy. Birth control pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), condoms, and abstinence all fall under this category. An important note: contraception does not equal STD prevention. The only way to prevent STDs is consistent condom use and regular STD testing!
What are the different kinds of birth control?
To list a few… there are low maintenance options (the birth control implant and intrauterine device) and methods you use daily to every few months (such as birth control pills, the birth control shot, and the birth control vaginal ring). Each method is unique in efficacy, side effects, and ease of use. Are you the kind of person who can take a pill at the same time every day, or do you prefer something a little more low maintenance? If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the options, these are all questions to discuss at your next visit with your gynecologist/PCP. If you’d like to do some research beforehand, I love the website Bedsider.org, which is full of accurate, useful information about different contraceptive methods, and even lets you compare methods side-by-side.
Looking for more info? Check out the Beyond the Pill guide.