12 Times You Need to See Your Gynecologist Immediately
With so many over-the-counter medicines that promise to cure nearly every vaginal infection out there, it’s tempting to skip making an appointment with your gynecologist. But, believe it or not, most issues down there call for a physical check-up. Even when your weekday schedule is filled to the brim or you don’t want to interrupt your weekend to get checked out, resist postponing an appointment — especially when it comes to any of these 12 situations.
1. Abnormal vaginal discharge or odor
While it’s normal to have vaginal discharge — anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon daily — an unusual texture, color, or odor, could be a sign of an underlying vaginal infection or sexually transmitted disease. “A grayish vaginal discharge associated with a ‘fishy’ odor can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, a common vaginitis in women,” Leah S. Millheiser, M.D. and clinical assistant professor of ob-gyn at Stanford University Medical Center, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “This is easily treated with antibiotics, but, when it goes untreated, it can increase the risk of HIV infection.”
Another common infection associated with an unusual discharge is a yeast infection. While there are many over-the-counter medications that claim to clear it right up, it’s best treated with a prescription from your gyno. “When a woman has recurrent yeast infections (more than three or four a year), she should speak to her gynecologist about screening for certain illnesses, like diabetes or HIV,” Millheiser explained.
2. Changes in menstrual cycle
There are plenty of reasons you might experience a change in your menstrual cycle, and most often it’s hormone-related. However, if you’re a woman of childbearing age, it’s important to rule out early pregnancy with a visit to your gyno. “Although most women stop their periods altogether when they’re pregnant, some will have spotting in the early part of the first trimester,” Millheiser said.
If you notice your periods are too frequent, however, make a visit to your ob-gyn. “Heavy bleeding with big blood clots, like the size of a grape or apricot, would be an abnormal amount of blood flow,” Sherry Ross, women’s health expert in Santa Monica, California, and author of She-ology, told us. “In general, an abnormal period or menstrual bleeding is when you’re changing a pad or tampon every 30 to 60 minutes for three to four hours.”
3. Appearance of new painful or non-painful lesions
If you notice any sores or lesions near your nether-regions that aren’t going away, make an appointment with your gynecologist, stat. “Sores in your genital region can be so many different things, so self diagnosis can go very wrong and cause a delay in your actual diagnosis and treatment,” Dr. Kameelah Phillips, an ob-gyn in New York City, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “A sore can be a simple ingrown hair, a genital wart, or a herpes outbreak, so I recommended that any new lesions be seen by your gyno for a definitive diagnosis and proper treatment.”
4. Pain and other problems with urination
Experiencing pain or difficulty urinating are symptoms often linked to bladder infections, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Additional symptoms include pain, burning, frequent urges to urinate even if nothing is coming out, blood in urine, and lower abdominal pain.
If left untreated, urinary tract infections can turn into a more worrisome kidney infection, known as pyelonephritis. Symptoms include severe back pain, fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. To put it bluntly, none of these symptoms are easy to manage with over-the-counter medication or willpower alone, so make an appointment with your doctor to find out what’s going on before it gets worse.
5. Dull pelvic pain or bloating that lasts more than two weeks
Cramps or pelvic pain along with bloating might seem like no big deal — maybe it was something you ate or a sign your period is on its way — but if you’re experiencing these symptoms for longer than two weeks, see your doctor. “Pelvic pain can signal bowel issues such as colitis, irritable bowel, rarely colon polyps or cancer, ovarian cysts, or rarely ovarian cancer, or enlarging uterine fibroids,” Diana Bitner, M.D., explained. “An evaluation with your gynecologist will require understanding personal health history, a physical exam, and at least a pelvic ultrasound to further target the cause.” And you might need to consider a colonoscopy if your pelvic pain is associated with a change in bowel habits.
6. Sudden, sharp pelvic pain
If the pain you’re experiencing in your pelvic region comes on suddenly and consists of sharp, striking pains that are worse with movement or straightening your legs, Bitner says it may signal an acute process such as appendicitis, a ruptured ovarian cyst, or a twisted ovary. “If you experience these symptoms together with a positive pregnancy test, an ectopic pregnancy may be to blame,” Bitner explained. While some cramping in early pregnancy is to be expected, sharp pains like these need to be addressed quickly. If it’s the weekend, head to the ER to get checked out.
7. Painful sex
Most sexually active individuals have experienced painful sex to some degree. A number of things can cause this, including everything from vaginal dryness and infection, to vaginal tears and lacerations, and even a latex allergy. “If you’re experiencing painful sex, it may be the result of something harmless such as lack of lubrication from low estrogen (like when you’re on the low-dose birth control pill), breastfeeding, or perimenopause,” Bitner said. “However, it may also be symptomatic of something more serious, such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids, benign tumors in the uterus.” You’ll want to go to your gyno for an evaluation, which will include a careful health history, physical exam, and maybe even a few other tests.
8. Sexual assault
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and prevalence is higher for females. “If a woman is the victim of a sexual assault, it’s vital that she be evaluated immediately by a trained professional (often in an emergency room), who can perform a forensic exam to collect evidence,” said Millheiser. “For this reason, a woman should not shower or bathe before this type of exam.” In addition, STD testing, as well as treatment to prevent certain sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, can be given at this exam.
9. Unplanned, unprotected intercourse
Most people have had a one-night stand at least once in their life. But, unfortunately not every person uses protection — at least, not every single time. “We see slip-ups all the time at the office and have heard every story in the book,” Phillips said. “So don’t worry about judgment — just get yourself to the gynecologist’s office for testing.” Why? Because it’s important to have a plan for STD testing, assess your pregnancy risk, and discuss your need for future contraception.
10. Spotting after sex
Most of the time, spotting after sex is fairly normal, Millheiser says. Oftentimes it’s caused by tears in the skin surrounding the vaginal or anal openings and is nothing worrisome. However, spotting after sex, if consistent over the course of weeks or months, could be a sign of cervical cancer. “If this spotting occurs after each episode of sex, she should be evaluated by her gynecologist for any cervical abnormalities,” she said.
11. Bleeding once you hit menopause
Most women reach menopause between the ages of 50 and 52, according to a some research. However, perimenopause can begin around age 45 or even earlier, depending on your family history. “Unless you’re on a certain medications or have had surgery to induce menopause, you should not experience vaginal bleeding of any kind after menopause has taken course,” said Dr. Phillips. “Post-menopausal bleeding is abnormal and can be an early sign of cancer.” If your period returns after a natural menopause, schedule a visit with your ob-gyn immediately to rule out more serious conditions.
12. A lost tampon
It happens far more often than you’d think, when a woman realizes she put a tampon in a few days ago, forgot to take it out, and now can’t seem to grasp it for the life of her. “You would be surprised how often I see what is medically called a ‘lost tampon!’” Ross said. “Often, women will notice a watery-brown discharge with a foul and pungent odor that’s different from a yeast infection or vaginal infection.”
More serious symptoms include persistent vaginal discharge, itching, pelvic pain, rash, and a fever, which may signal toxic shock syndrome, a rare complication of having a staph bacterial infection caused by a retained tampon. See your health care provider immediately for treatment, Ross advises.
[Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 16, 2017.]