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11/03/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Things Your Gynecologist Can Tell From A Basic Exam

Wondering if you should make an appointment? Those 20 minutes could reveal more about your health than you realize.

By Corrie Pikul

Only 17 percent of women see their gynecologist for an annual exam. And while the American College of Physicians recently said that healthy-seeming women don’t really need a pelvic exam, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with many doctors, still believes in the value of a full workup. We asked Lauren Streicher, MD, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school, to give us some great reasons why the other 83 percent of us might want to schedule an appointment.

They can (literally) spot what's ruining your sex life.

Many patients are hesitant to discuss their sexual difficulties, says Streicher, who is also the author of Love Sex Again. They're often embarrassed or don't think it's important enough to bring up to a medical professional. Gynecologists can recognize vaginal dryness due to estrogen fluctuations: The tissue, which is normally deep pink and glistening, looks pale—almost white—and matte, says Streicher.

They can recognize the condition that's ruining the rest of your life.

During a manual exam, gynecologists, who are experts in this particular territory, are sometimes able to detect when muscles have weakened to the point where they may cause incontinence—another health issue that Streicher says an overwhelming number of patients are hesitant to complain about, especially to primary care doctors.

They can tell when your "yeast infection" is actually this.

Seventy percent of women try to self-treat a yeast infection before calling a doctor, found a study by the American Social Health Association. But (surprise!) Streicher says that in many cases, that yeast infection commonly turns out to be different kind of vaginal infection, like bacterial vaginosis, which doesn't respond to OTC yeast meds. A gynecologist can tell for sure what's going on by the type of discharge as well as the appearance of the vagina and vulva, and can recommend the appropriate treatment.

They can identify those very rare—and very scary—diseases (as well as those not-so-rare, still-serious diseases).

Dr. Streicher recently saw a patient who hadn't been to the gynecologist in almost 20 years because she'd had a hysterectomy and figured that, well, there wasn't much left down there to examine. The patient had made an appointment only after noticing bloody vaginal discharge. It turned out she'd developed stage 4 vaginal cancer. To be clear, this is not a common cancer, says Streicher, but a gynecologist would have likely spotted it much earlier. During an annual appointment, your doctor will also check the vulva area for signs of melanoma and potentially pre-cancerous skin changes like lichen sclerosus, which often doesn't present any symptoms. While she's checking out the vagina and cervix, she can identify polyps or other growths that may be benign but could become problematic if they aren't removed.

They can confirm that you're the amazing 1 in 2,000.

You might never know that you have two uteruses (and two vaginas) until your gynecologist reveals your body's fascinating secret. You might also be unaware of other asymptomatic anatomical findings that would be good to know about before they become a problem, like an enlarged uterus (which may indicate fibroids) or a low bladder (which, combined with weak pelvic muscles, is an indication of bladder prolapse). A gynecologist will fill you in and help you decide what to do—if you need to do anything at all.

...but they can't tell you this (unless you ask).

Most patients are surprised to find that their gynecologist can't recognize every single STD on sight alone. Streicher says that while they can spot inflammation and other suspicious clues of a serious STD like chlamydia or gonorrhea, the only way to tell for sure is to get a blood test. This is why it's a good idea for sexually active women -- or anyone who suspects they may be infected—to request additional lab work. After a physical exam, of course.'

Streicher says that while they can spot inflammation and other suspicious clues of a serious STD, the only way to tell for sure is to get a follow-up test (e.g., a urine test or swab for gonorrhea; a blood test for HIV). This is why it's a good idea for sexually active women -- or anyone who suspects they may be infected -- to talk to their gynecologist about additional lab work. After a physical exam, of course.

CORRECTION: This article originally inferred that chlamydia and gonorrhea are diagnosed by a blood test when they are in fact tested by a urine test or swab of the affected area.

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