What is a well-woman visit?
Your well-woman visit is all about you, your body, and your reproductive health. Well-woman visits are also called gynecological exams, pelvic exams, or annual exams. If you have a vulva, breasts, or a uterus, these visits are an important part of taking care of your health (no matter what your gender identity is).
What happens during a well-woman visit?
What happens during your well-woman visit (some people call it a well woman exam) depends on a few things, like how old you are, your sexual history, and medical history. It’s a good idea to have your first well-woman visit around age 13 to 15. It may just be a talk with your doctor plus a regular physical exam. Your doctor or nurse will check your height, weight and blood pressure. You might talk about your period, especially if you’re worried about it being heavy, painful, or irregular. If you’re under 18, you may get some shots, like the HPV vaccine, as well.
If you’re sexually active (meaning you’ve had vaginal, anal, or oral sex), you may talk about birth control or STD testing. Around age 21, you’ll start needing regular pelvic exams, Pap tests, and breast examinations. And as you get older, or as your health changes, your well-woman visits will include other tests and referrals for stuff like mammograms. One thing that stays the same, no matter how old you are, is building a good, honest relationship with your doctor or nurse. You can talk about healthy relationships and other parts of your emotional health during your well-woman visit. The more honest you are, the better care you’ll get.
Have a breasts and/or a vagina but don’t identify as a woman? It’s still a good idea to have these kinds of check-ups with your nurse or doctor, along with any trans care you’re receiving.
What kinds of questions will they ask me?
First, your doctor or nurse will ask about your medical history and your family's medical history.
These questions help them give you the care that's right for you, so try to be as honest and as complete as you can. They’ll ask you questions like:
When was your last period?
How often do you have periods?
How long do they last?
Do you ever bleed/spot between periods?
Do you have any unusual pain, itching, or discharge from your vagina or vulva?
Do you have any other medical conditions?
What medical problems do other members of your family have?
Are you sexually active? (In other words: have you ever had vaginal, anal, or oral sex?)
Do you have sex with men, women, or both?
Is sex ever painful?
Do you bleed during or after sex?
Are you using birth control?
Do you think you might be pregnant?
Do you want to get pregnant?
What do you do to prevent STDs?
Your doctor or nurse may also ask you about alcohol or other drug use, allergies, illnesses, infections, smoking, and any surgery you might have had. All these things can affect your reproductive health, so be honest. It’s important to have a doctor or nurse you trust and can be open with. So if you’re not comfortable being 100% honest with your current doctor or nurse, think about switching to someone else.
Your well-woman exam is a time for you to ask questions, too! Your doctor can answer any questions you might have about:
Bleeding or pain after sex
Tests for chlamydia, herpes, HIV, HPV, or other infections you may be concerned about
Make sure you ask all the questions that you want to. If you need any tests, you can usually take care of them during your appointment.
Will I need to have any tests?
It depends. If you have abnormal bleeding, vaginal itching, foul odors, or any kind of pain or swelling, your doctor might want to run some tests. If you’ve had sex, it’s important to get tested for STDs. Or you may not need any tests at all.
Once you’re 21, you’ll start having Pap tests to check for the early signs of cervical cancer. You’ll also start having clinical breast exams to screen for breast cancer. Other cancer screenings, like mammograms, start later in life — around age 40, depending on your family history and other possible health risks.
How should I prepare for my well-woman visit?
You don’t need to do much to get ready for a well-woman visit. But here are some tips to make your well-woman visit go as smoothly as possible.
Go on a day when you don’t have your period, or it’s at least fairly light — unless you have a bleeding problem that your doctor or nurse wants to see.
Make a list of the questions you want to ask your doctor or nurse. Write them down so that it’s easier to remember them during your appointment.
Ask if you can have a friend or parent in the room with you if that would make you feel more comfortable.
When should I get my first pelvic exam?
When you turn 21, a pelvic exam is a regular part of your well-woman visit. A pelvic exam is a normal part of taking care of your body. It only takes a few minutes and it doesn’t hurt.Unless you have a medical problem, you can wait to make an appointment for your first well-woman visit (which is when routine pelvic exams are done) when you turn 21.
What happens during a pelvic exam?
During a pelvic exam, a doctor or nurse examines your vulva and your internal reproductive organs — your vagina, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. If you think you might have an STD, another kind of infection (like a yeast infection), or any other issue with your reproductive health, let your doctor or nurse know at the beginning of your appointment. They’ll talk with you and decide if they need to do any special tests or exams.
In general here’s what happens at a pelvic exam.
First, they’ll give you a few minutes of privacy to undress and put on a paper or cloth gown. Then they’ll come back in and ask you to lie down on the exam table and put your legs up on footrests or knee-rests. Slide your hips down to the edge of the table. Let your knees spread out wide. Don’t worry — your doctor will talk you through all this. Try to relax your butt, stomach and vaginal muscles as much as possible. This will make you more comfortable.
There are usually 3 or 4 parts to a pelvic exam:
1. The external exam — Your doctor or nurse will look at your vulva and the opening of your vagina. They’re checking for signs of cysts, abnormal discharge, genital warts, irritation, or other issues.
2. The speculum exam — Your doctor will gently slide a speculum into your vagina. The speculum is made of metal or plastic. It separates the walls of your vagina when it opens. This may feel uncomfortable or weird, but it shouldn’t hurt. Let your doctor know if it does hurt, because they may be able to fix the size or position of the speculum. If you’d like to see your cervix, just ask. You may be able to see it using a mirror. Your doctor will then use a tiny spatula or brush to wipe a small sample of cells from your cervix. This sample will be sent to a lab for a Pap test to see if there is any pre-cancer or cancer in your cervix. If your doctor or nurse is testing you for STDs (like chlamydia or gonorrhea) or other infections, they’ll use a cotton swab to take a sample of the discharge from your cervix. This sample will be tested.
3. The bimanual exam — During this part of the exam, your doctor or nurse will put 1 or 2 gloved and lubricated fingers into your vagina while gently pressing on your lower abdomen with their other hand. This is a way to check for the size, shape, and position of your uterus tenderness or pain — which might mean infection or another condition enlarged ovaries, fallopian tubes, ovarian cysts, or tumors
4. The rectovaginal exam — Your doctor or nurse may also put a gloved finger into your rectum. This checks the muscles between your vagina and your anus. This also checks for tumors behind your uterus, on the lower wall of your vagina, or in your rectum. Some doctors put another finger in your vagina while they do this. This lets them examine the tissue in between more thoroughly. You may feel like you need to poop during this part of the exam. Don’t worry, you won’t. This is totally normal and only lasts a few seconds.
What does a pelvic exam feel like?
Your pelvic exam will only take a few minutes. Some parts of the exam may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be painful. If it hurts, say something. Your doctor or nurse may be able to make things more comfortable. This exam is for you, so don't be afraid to speak up.
You'll feel less tense during your pelvic exam if you:
Breathe slowly and deeply.
Let your stomach muscles go soft.
Relax your shoulders.
Relax the muscles between your legs.
Ask your doctor or nurse to describe what’s happening.
How often do I need to get a pelvic exam?
It depends. After your first pelvic exam, your doctor or nurse will tell you when you need to come back. It’ll depend on your medical history and whether you have any health issues.
You may need more frequent pelvic exams if you have:
A history of abnormal Pap test results
A history of sexual health problems
A family history of certain kinds of cancer
An STD or a sex partner with an infection
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.