It’s important to know how your body works, and be able to recognize when something isn’t quite right. If something changes or doesn’t seem quite right, get checked by a qualified healthcare provider.
If you have any symptoms that you’re just not sure about, get evaluated. But you don’t have to have a symptom to get checked, though. All sexually active women under age 26 are recommended to be tested yearly for chlamydia. Older women with risk factors (new or several partners) should also be tested. If you have questions about testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), don’t be shy about talking to your healthcare provider (learn more how to do that here).
Also, ask about pelvic exams (see more below) and Pap tests. While not designed to detect STIs, these simple exams are an important part of a woman’s sexual and reproductive health.
Learn to Recognize Problems
The vagina is designed to keep itself clean with natural, healthy vaginal secretions. A healthy vagina does makes a discharge—slippery and clear or whitish when moist, may turn yellowish when dried, and has little odor. This healthy discharge may also be thicker during some parts of the month. Unhealthy discharge is different. It often has an odd color (yellow, greenish, gray or thick white) and may also have strong, unpleasant odor.
An unusual discharge is only one sign of possible problems, though. Swelling, itching or burning in and around the vagina can also signal a problem. These symptoms are referred to as vaginitis, a broad term to describe different types of vaginal infections. Vaginitis is very common, with common causes including yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
Get checked if:
- You’re having unusual or heavy vaginal discharge.
- Your discharge has strong odor, particularly if it is “fish-like”
- You experience itching or irritation in and around the vagina.
In a perfect world, women would have their period on a regular cycle of 28 days. In reality, the range is more like 21-45 days. A young girl who is just beginning to have her periods and an older woman who’s at the end of her reproductive life may both have erratic periods.
Get checked if:
- You’re sexually active and skip a period. You may be pregnant.
- Your period still hasn’t settled into a relatively predictable pattern after three years, or if you have four or five regular periods and then skip a period or becomes irregular.
- Your cycle is less than 21 days or more than 45 days or if you don’t get a period for three months after first beginning your period.
- Heavy, prolonged periods or no periods at all
Either extreme can be a sign of trouble. The cause may be as simple as a hormone imbalance or as serious as a structural problem.
It can be helpful to use an app to track your periods so that you can see evidence of irregularities when they pop up. There are lots of period trackers out there including: Spot On by Planned Parenthood, Clue, Flo, and many more. Many allow you to track other symptoms or even remind you to take birth control.
Get checked if:
- You’re soaking through at least one sanitary napkin (pad) an hour for several hours in a row
- You have periods that last longer than 7 days
- You haven’t started your period and you’re three years past the first signs of puberty or 16 years old
- You’ve had normal periods then suddenly stop having periods for more than six months or for three of your usual cycles
Having cramps for a day or two of your period is normal, but if they’re severe enough to keep you from participating in your normal activities, it’s time to get checked.
This could be a sign of many things, such as endometriosis (tissue growing outside the uterus) for example, or other conditions. Get checked.
Toxic shock syndrome
This illness is caused by toxins, which create a bacterial infection. While linked with tampon use, it can also associated with the use of contraceptive sponge and diaphragm. If you have a high fever, diarrhea, vomiting or are in shock, get checked right away. Of course, the symptoms may not be related to toxic shock syndrome, but better to be safe than sorry.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
If you are sexually active, you have to protect yourself from diseases and infections. Obviously, the best protection is abstinence, but if you are having sexual intercourse, use a condom every time.
Using a condom doesn’t mean you can forget about sexual health. You still need to be vigilant. Remember, many STIs do not produce symptoms.
However, if you notice any of the following:
- pain in the pelvic area
- pain in the lower abdomen
- pain when having sex
- discharge from the vagina
- a bad smell
- bleeding between periods
- burning when you pee
Or if you notice a problem with the following:
- painful bowel movements
- nausea, vomiting or loss of appetite
- fever or fatigue
- blisters, sores, warts (or any odd skin change, including rashes and yellowed skin)
- itching or swelling
- inflammation (redness)
Having a symptom doesn’t mean you have a disease. The symptoms (or lack of) are so many and varied, it’s hard to tell if, for example, bleeding between periods is simply the result of a normal, age-related hormone imbalance or a sexually transmitted infection. Get checked anyway.
Each year, one of every four sexually active teens will get an STD/STI. By age 25, half of all young people will have acquired one or more infections. If you have any symptoms that you’re just not sure about, get evaluated.
What to Expect at Your First Pelvic Exam
Whoever you choose—male or female doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant—let the provider know this is your first exam. He or she will be more apt to explain the procedure as you go along. Your provider will examine your external sexual organs for any changes or abnormalities. They will also use an instrument called a speculum to open your vagina and take a look at your cervix. A Pap test is often done as part of a pelvic exam. While the vagina is open, the healthcare provider will use a small stick or brush to take a collection of cells from your cervix. These cells are then sent to a lab and examined under a microscope for anything that looks abnormal. The Pap test is an important means of preventing cervical cancer.
Your provider may also perform a bimanual and/or rectovaginal exam. During the bimanual exam, the doctor will put one or two gloved and lubricated fingers into the vaginal while feeling the abdomen so that they can feel the placement of internal reproductive organs and check for signs of cysts, tumors, or pain. During a rectovaginal exam, the provider would place a gloved and lubricated finger into the rectum to check for issues behind the uterus. Sometimes, they place a finger in the rectum and another in the vagina to check the pelvic floor muscles for issues.
The whole exam is quick, painless and necessary.
Once a baseline has been established, any changes in your body will be noticeable and easier to diagnose. If an abnormality exists, it can be treated.
Bottom line? Pay attention to your body and how it works. Make sure a qualified healthcare provider is tracking your reproductive health. If something changes or doesn’t seem quite right, get checked.