Gynecological exams are an important part of keeping women healthy.
The tests done during each exam can detect health problems early on, when they're often much easier to treat. These regular visits can also help women avoid some health problems altogether.
A routine gynecological exam helps evaluate your general wellness.
That's why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls it a well-woman exam.
Your doctor might ask about any recent illnesses, talk about your family's medical history and inquire about your lifestyle. He or she will want to know whether your menstrual cycle has been regular and what birth control you use, if any.
Depending on your age and risk factors, you might be asked to undergo a mammogram or MRI—imaging tests that can reveal very early breast cancers.
You might also have a pelvic exam to check the general health of your vagina, cervix, uterus and ovaries. Your doctor will need to press on your abdomen and may also do a rectal exam at this time.
A frequent companion to the pelvic exam is the Pap test, in which your doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix to look for early signs of cancer.
Your doctor might recommend other tests—for chlamydia, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—depending on your age and risk factors.
Tests you may need
Your doctor can help you decide what tests should be included in your annual exam. Here are some testing recommendations from the college, the Office on Women's Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Pap test. The initial test should happen at age 21, according to the college. After that, most women should be screened every three years until age 30. The college recommends most women switch to co-testing with a Pap test and HPV (human papillomavirus) test every five years from age 30 to 65. Some women may be able to stop screening after age 65. Your doctor can help you decide on the screening schedule that's best for you.
Mammogram. The American Cancer Society recommends regular screening starting at age 45. If you have risk factors for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend earlier testing.
Chlamydia test. Annual testing is recommended for women 25 or younger who have sex or older women who have risk factors (such as a new sex partner or multiple sex partners).
STI testing. Initial testing may be recommended when you become sexually active. Routine testing depends on risk factors. All women should be tested for HIV.
The schedule for you
Though gynecological exams are recommended at least once a year, health issues can arise that require more frequent checks or more specialized tests. Your doctor can help you determine the exam schedule that best meets your needs.