Gynecology ("gyn" for short) is a medical field that focuses on the female reproductive system. A gyn checkup is a yearly health check — like a regular eye exam or dental checkup.
Doctors often call gyn checkups "well woman visits" because they're designed to keep you healthy by catching small issues before they turn into big ones. It's sort of like when a dentist finds a cavity before it gives you a toothache.
Doctors might call the yearly checkup a "gyn exam," but there's very little actual examining involved. A doctor or nurse may quickly look at your breasts and "down there" to be sure everything's OK. But most of the visit will be spent talking.
Some of the things you'll discuss are periods, birth control, STDs, sexuality, relationships, pregnancy, and body image [links]. Most importantly, you'll have a chance to ask questions about anything — like how your breasts look, if you should shave your pubic hair or not, or if the things you've heard about STDs are true.
When Should I Get a Gyn Checkup?
Doctors recommend girls get a first gynecology checkup sometime between ages 13 and 15. Most girls have started going through puberty by then, so it's a good time to check that everything's developing OK.
After your first appointment, you should go for a gyn checkup once a year, even if you feel fine. Because most of your reproductive system is hidden inside your body, you can't always tell if there's a problem. Talking about what's going on with your body gives doctors or nurses a heads up if anything's not quite right.
Most girls don't need breast exams or pelvic exams until their early 20s. If a doctor or nurse notices anything unusual, though (or if you have problems, like heavy bleeding, missed periods, vaginal sores or itchiness, or other symptoms) you may get a pelvic exam at your gyn appointment. Doctors may do breast or pelvic exams if you have a family history of problems.
When you arrive for your appointment, the office staff will ask for your health insurance information and give you forms to fill out. The forms will include questions about:
the date of your last period
any health conditions you might have (like diabetes or asthma)
medications you take
your lifestyle and health habits (like exercise or smoking)
your family health history (like if your parents have any health problems)
if you've ever been pregnant
if you are using birth control and what type
A nurse or medical assistant will take you into the exam room to weigh you and get your blood pressure. If the doctor is going to do a quick visual check of things like breast growth, you will be left alone to get undressed. The assistant or nurse will give you a robe to wear and a sheet to cover you.
Your doctor will look at your breasts to figure out where you might be in your growth and if you are developing normally. She or he will then take a quick look at your external reproductive organs (your vaginal opening and the area around it) to be sure everything's OK.
If you haven't had the HPV vaccine yet, your doctor or nurse will probably suggest you get it. She may also recommend other immunizations to protect you against STDs, such as a hepatitis B vaccine.
Some doctors and like to meet with you first, then examine you. Others do an exam first.
A parent can stay with you in the examining room if you want. But if you'd rather not have a parent with you at any point in your checkup, let the doctor or nurse know. Most doctors will spend some alone time with you during your visit, though they may include your parent in a separate discussion.
Doctors understand the importance of keeping things private and confidential. Ask your doctor or nurse what he or she plans to tell your parent about your exam and let them know if there's anything you don't feel comfortable sharing. Different states have different rules when it comes to patient confidentiality. If you're worried about privacy, ask about the office policy when you call to make an appointment.
If you've ever had sex, the doctor or nurse might test for STDs. That means providing a urine sample or vaginal swab for the doctor to send to a lab for analysis.
If you get a vaginal swab done in the doctor's office, the doctor or nurse will quickly wipe a cotton swab inside your vagina to collect a sample of mucus. Some places give you a kit to take home and get the sample yourself.
Most STD tests are done with urine or vaginal swabs, but a few require a blood test.
Doctors do their best to keep your results confidential. Talk to your doctor or a nurse about how you want to get your STD test results, and what they should do if they can't reach you directly.
There are lots of rumors floating around about sex and sexuality. Your gyn appointment is a chance to get real answers.
Write down any questions you have in the days before the appointment. Take the list with you so you don't forget anything. If you feel shy or embarrassed asking a question, you can just give your list to the doctor or nurse.
It might be awkward talking about some topics at first, especially if you've never had sex and aren't planning on it. But the best time to talk about sex and relationships is before you need to know, so you're fully prepared when the time comes.
There's another advantage to getting past any weirdness and talking about sex with your doctor: The more you talk about difficult topics, the more comfortable you'll get. That can make it easier to talk to parents about any sensitive topic — not just sex. Your doctor can also give you tips on how to talk to partners about condoms, STDs, and other sexual health topics.
Who Does the Checkup?
Most gyn checkups are done by gynecologists, but you don't have to see a gynecologist. Family doctors, adolescent health specialists, nurse practitioners, or pediatricians also do gyn checkups. Some girls visit a health clinic (like Planned Parenthood).
Both male and female doctors can do a gyn checkup. The most important thing is to be comfortable with the person who is examining you.
Making the Appointment
If you're 13 or older and your parents haven't said anything about a gyn checkup, let them know you'd like one. It's best to include parents in your health care. If you want to go to a doctor's office, you may need to involve a parent or other adult because of insurance (it can be expensive otherwise).
If you can't involve your parents, you can go to a health clinic like Planned Parenthood. Some high schools have on-site clinics that offer reproductive health care. Clinic staff are fully trained and often care for you at a lower cost.
Before you go to your appointment, write down any questions you have. Make a note of the date when you had your last period. Take your health insurance card or information with you.
After the Checkup
The office or clinic will let you know if the doctor or nurse practitioner needs to see you after your checkup. Otherwise, you won't need to go back for another year — unless you notice any health problems, of course.
Gyn checkups help detect any problems early on, so you need to get one every year. If you don't want to go back because you didn't like the doctor or nurse practitioner, find a new doctor or clinic.