An annual checkup with your gynecologist can help you stay on top of your sexual and reproductive health. But there are a few common mistakes you might be making that can prevent you from getting the best possible care.
Here, gynecologists explain what these mistakes are and what they wish you'd do instead when you're in their exam room.
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1. Lying About Your Sexual History
Some topics are considered taboo in polite conversation, and sex can be one of them. Discussing your sex life with your gynecologist is a different story, though.
They'll want to know the gist of your sexual history, including any encounters you've had with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the number of sexual partners you've had during your lifetime. This is where you may be tempted to bend the truth, but your doctor would strongly prefer you didn't.
You may assume such personal information isn't relevant during your checkup — or you may feel embarrassed — but it can change how your care team proceeds, especially if you're pregnant, says Suzanne Bovone, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at Pediatrix Medical Group in San Jose, California.
Though rare, pregnant people with genital herpes can pass it to the baby during delivery. This is known as neonatal herpes, and it's a serious and sometimes fatal condition, according to the American Sexual Health Association.
To mitigate the risk, Dr. Bovone says she recommends suppression therapy during the last month of pregnancy and in some cases a C-section delivery.
Your gynecologist may also ask about your sexual partners to assess your risk of contracting an STI. "Our job is to educate, and there is never any judgment," Dr. Bovone says, adding that you shouldn't feel embarrassed to ask any questions you have about sex or STIs.
When it comes to discussing your sexual health, gynecologists want you to know that honesty is the best policy.
2. Feeling Embarrassed About Your Body
There's an unspoken pressure on people with breasts and vaginas to look their best at all times, but gynecologists want you to stop apologizing or feeling insecure about your grooming (or lack thereof) during your visits.
"Whether you haven't shaved your legs, gotten waxed recently or fear the way you smell, please know that your gynecologist is only focused on making sure you're healthy," says Kate White, MD, FACOG, a Boston-based, board-certified gynecologist. "Your doctor isn't even thinking about how you look or smell."
This is such a common concern that board-certified ob-gyn Tracey A. Banks, MD, FACOG, echoes it: "We don't note the state of your leg hair in your chart," she jokes. "We honestly don't care about body hair — we're looking at other, more anatomical things."
Your gynecologist has far more important things to worry about than a little stubble, and they're completely unfazed by vaginal odor (most healthy vaginas have a mild scent, according to the Cleveland Clinic).
3. Rescheduling Your Appointment Due to Menstruation or Heavy Bleeding
Menstruating people bleed an average of five days per month. Unfortunately, life doesn't revolve around them.
When you get your period, you still have to go to work, school and even your doctor appointments.
But wait, won't your gynecologist see and potentially touch your period blood during your internal exam? Possibly — and they're OK with it, so you shouldn't cancel or reschedule based on your period alone.
"Remember that gynecologists deliver babies, so we deal with bodily fluids — blood, amniotic fluid and even poop — all the time," Dr. Bovone says.
She adds that if your appointment is specifically to discuss your heavy bleeding, then you definitely shouldn't wait for it to stop before being seen.
"We can place disposable pads below patients for their comfort and keep sanitary products in each room for this very reason," she explains.
If you're concerned that getting your period or having heavy bleeding could pose a problem during your appointment, call up your doctor's office and let them know. Depending on the type of visit you have scheduled, they'll advise you whether you should keep or reschedule it.
4. Fibbing About Your Use of Alcohol, Cigarettes or Drugs
Nearly every gynecologist we spoke to asked that you be fully transparent about your use of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs — especially if you're pregnant.
"Doctors are here to help you, not scold you," says Stephanie Culver, MD, FACOG, a board-certified, Los Angeles-based gynecologist at Pandia Health. "It's necessary to discuss any alcohol use since no amount is truly ever 'safe.'"
Not only does regular alcohol use increase the risk of certain conditions, such as heart disease and cancer, it can also interact with many medications.
What's more, it can harm unborn babies during pregnancy. If you're pregnant, you may think the occasional glass of wine is OK, but gynecologists warn against this. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the chances of the baby being born with fetal alcohol syndrome and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Like alcohol, smoking cigarettes and using recreational drugs can have negative health consequences. Being honest with your doctor can help open up a larger discussion around how some of these habits could be affecting your wellbeing, but those conversations can't happen if you aren't truthful.
5. Forgetting to Mention Any Medications or Supplements You Take
A lot is discussed during your checkup at the gynecologist's office, so you may forget a thing or two. One thing to prioritize bringing up is any medication, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines or supplements you use.
"The medications and supplements you take can have a huge impact on your health," says Dr. Bovone, which is why your gynecologist will ask you if you're currently taking anything. "We have to know the details to best care for you."
For example, you may be having side effects from a medication you didn't disclose, or run the risk of taking medications that interact with each other.
You may not intend to omit important information, but you may accidentally forget every medication or supplement you take. Jotting them down ahead of your appointment can help you keep track and paint a full picture for your doctor.
"Keep an ongoing list of all your medications or bring them to the appointment," recommends Dr. Banks.
6. Agreeing to an Examination You Don’t Want
A checkup at the gynecologist may involve an internal exam or a breast exam, which can be uncomfortable for some people. If that's not something you want, you have the right to turn it down.
"Gynecologists perform so many exams that we sometimes forget they're a cause of stress or even trauma for some people," Dr. White says. "You should feel free to decline any exam you really don't want."
This isn't to say that these exams aren't important — they just might not be necessary for you at the time. For example, Dr. White says a pap smear should be done every three to five years depending on your history. If you've had one recently and it came back normal, you may not need another one just yet.
A pelvic exam or swabs for infections may also be avoidable depending on a few factors. There are times when a pelvic exam isn't needed, such as during STI screening, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Additionally, you can opt for a self-swab test to detect for infections, Dr. White adds.
Ultimately, you have the right to say no to an unwanted exam. If your gynecologist thinks it's absolutely necessary, they will discuss it with you further.
7. Declining Important Testing or Pre-Screening
There are times when testing or pre-screening comes in handy, and in those cases, gynecologists would rather you didn't decline them. However, some people turn them down because they don't want to get bad news or because of the cost, Dr. Bovone says.
One example is carrier screening for genetic disorders that could get passed down to your children. "Prior to pregnancy, I encourage genetic testing for recessive diseases," Dr. Bovone explains. "Most people think that because they're healthy they don't carry these diseases, but you or your partner might be carriers."
This is when the anxiety sets in — no one wants to get bad news. To this, Dr. Bovone says it's less anxiety-inducing to do the testing before conceiving rather than after.
If cost's an issue, your provider may also be able to find alternatives. Going through another company or laboratory may work within your budget.
Carrier screening is ultimately optional, but doctors prefer patients to be empowered with information about their health when making big life decisions like starting a family.
8. Not Bringing Up Your Painful Periods or Menopause Symptoms
Both Dr. White and Dr. Culver say you shouldn't keep your painful periods to yourself, and they don't want you to believe that severe menstrual pain is a normal part of being a menstruating person.
Painful periods that affect your day-to-day life aren't normal, according to the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Women's Health.
"No one really enjoys their monthly bleed, but if you're scheduling your life around your periods, relying on ibuprofen to get through them or buying new bed sheets often because you keep bleeding on them, there are treatments available," Dr. White says.
These symptoms could also be a sign of endometriosis, Dr. Culver adds.
In addition to painful periods, doctors want to know if you have any menopause symptoms.
"There are medications for menopause symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness and brain fog," says Dr. Culver.
She adds that health care providers don't always initiate the conversation around sexual problems, so you may need to fork up the courage to bring it up on your own. "You are entitled to sexual health and wellness," she says.
9. Waiting Until the End of the Visit to Bring Up a New Concern
If Dr. Banks has one request, it's this one: "Stop waiting until we're walking out the door at the end of your appointment to tell us there is 'one more thing' we need to address."
This is called the "doorknob effect," per Dr. Culver, and it's when patients wait until the last possible moment — typically when the physician is leaving the room — to mention or ask something crucial.
So, when should you bring up your concerns? At the very beginning, Dr. Banks says. "When we know all the issues up front, we can make the most effective use of the visit," she says.
If it helps, you can jot down everything you want to address ahead of time so you don't forget.
Even if you're prepared, the doorknob effect could be chalked up to nerves or anxiety. You may fear the unknown, hence the hesitation, Dr. Culver says.
If you find yourself in that position, she recommends scheduling a follow-up appointment to address it and coming back with some questions prepared or background knowledge to increase your confidence in talking about it.
10. Bringing Children to Your Appointments
Gynecologists deliver babies, so naturally, they love children. But children can also be a source of distraction during a visit that should be focused on you.
"As ob-gyns, we like to see the kids we delivered, but it's hard in the toddler phase when they are not contained in a stroller," Dr. Bovone says.
During some visits, the topics of conversation might not be kid-friendly. They can be inappropriate for pre-teens to hear or they can be emotional, such as detecting a miscarriage, where it's hard to have children present, she adds.
While Dr. Bovone says she always wants to see photos of her patients' kids, she recommends leaving them at home during your visits if possible.
But don't feel like you have to come alone. Bringing someone you trust can help calm your nerves or provide emotional support if there will be a diagnosis.
"Bringing a partner, family member or trusted friend can make your visits so much better," Dr. White says. "This person can take notes for you, advocate for your wants or needs, remind you of questions to ask and help you remember key takeaways from the appointment."
She says you don't need to let the office know in advance — just bring the person along.
- American Sexual Health Association: “Herpes and Pregnancy”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Vaginal Odor”
- American Addiction Centers: “Blurred Lines: Alcohol Consumption by Americans”
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Pelvic Exams”
- Oregon Health & Science University Center for Women’s Health: “Severe Menstrual Pain is NOT Normal”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Excessive Alcohol Use is a Risk to Women’s Health"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.