OB-GYN Dr. Lisa Masterson says the age a woman should have her first pap smear is 21 or when she becomes sexually active, whichever comes first. “But now we want moms to take their daughters in at 12 or 13. Not for an exam, but to start getting to know their gynecologist and to possibly get the HPV vaccine.”
Annual pelvic exams are essential to a woman's reproductive and overall health, as they screen for disorders such as endometriosis, hormonal imbalances such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and sexually transmitted diseases like the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Endometriosis is a disorder of the female reproductive system in which the endometrial cells become attached to tissues surrounding the uterus, such as the fallopian tubes, ovaries or the large or small intestines. This can cause bleeding, intense cramping and pain, and can affect a woman’s fertility. Common symptoms are pain during sex or severe menstrual cramps.
A recommended course of treatment for endometriosis is taking birth control pills, which suppress the symptoms. If there is no improvement after taking medication, laparoscopic surgery is available.
Other causes of dyspareunia, or painful intercourse, include infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Nearly two out of every three women will experience dyspareunia in their lives, and it is recommended that she visit her OB-GYN.
PCOS is an imbalance of female sex hormones that affects one in five women. The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, produces luteinizing hormones (LH) that direct the function of the ovaries. In those suffering PCOS, however, the pituitary gland may release abnormally high amounts of LH, disrupting ovulation and possibly leading to infertility. Women with PCOS often show excessive testosterone levels, which can lead to acne and abnormal hair growth on the face and stomach. A connection has also been shown between PCOS and abnormal insulin levels, which may explain weight gain, though it has not been determined that PCOS is the actual cause.
Common Symptoms of PCOS
• Irregular or no menstrual periods for women of reproductive age
• Irregular ovulation, with or without monthly bleeding
• Excess hair growth on the face and body
• Thinning scalp hair
Currently, there is no cure for PCOS, but it may be controlled with weight loss and treated with medications such as Lupron and insulin. Be sure to consult your OB-GYN if you display any of the above symptoms.
HPV is the most common STD in the United States. Four strains of HPV account for 90 percent of cervical, oral and anal cancers, but may be avoided with preventative measures such as regular visits to your OB-GYN and receiving the HPV vaccine.
“Cervical cancer can be prevented and cured with early screening tests like pap smears and colposcopies,” Dr. Lisa says.
It is common for women to experience anxiety when it comes to their annual OB-GYN visits. Dr. Lisa shares simple tips to lower the stress before your next gyno appointment:
• For a more comfortable breast exam, schedule your visit after your period, as your breasts will be less lumpy and tender.
• For a painless pap test, urinate before the exam.
• Refrain from intercourse the day before the exam because sex can affect the results.
• Don't douche or use vaginal creams or powders at least one day prior.
• Be completely honest with your OB-GYN, so she or he can provide the best possible treatment.