Many young women wonder when they should first see a gynecologist, and women of all ages often aren’t sure how often to visit a sexual or reproductive health practitioner. The answer depends on a variety of factors, including the woman’s age, health profile, and level of sexual activity. In general, a woman should visit her gynecologist once a year, unless circumstances make additional visits necessary.
The First Visit
Most family planning advocacy groups advise that a woman make her first appointment when she becomes sexually active. The age at which this happens differs in countries all over the world, but generally falls between the ages of 15 and 21. Young women who plan to become sexually active should visit a gynecologist or their family doctor or nurse practitioner first to discuss birth control options and safe practices. Most healthcare professionals suggest that sexually active women in good health, who are not pregnant, get yearly check-ups.
If a woman has not engaged in any sexual behavior, including oral sex or any kind of intercourse, it’s suggested that she see a gynecologist for the first time when she is 21 years old. Whether or not sexual activity has occurred, the first visit will typically include a pelvic examination and a confidential medical history. Medical professionals usually recommend that a woman have a Pap test for cervical abnormalities within three years of becoming sexually active, but this test is not always performed during the first visit to a gynecologist.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOB) and other sexual health organizations generally suggest that women have yearly exams, with Pap tests every three years. An exception is that the ACOB advises that a woman over 30 years old who has had at least three normal Pap tests need only have a gynecological checkup every two to three years, unless she has a Pap test with abnormal results. On the other hand, a woman who has more than one sexual partner, or whose partner is active with others, might require the typical annual visit.
Many women think of gynecological visits as solely for sexual and reproductive health, but this exam is important for other reasons too. In addition to a pelvic exam, the annual visit typically includes a breast exam and a thyroid check, as a means of screening for lumps that might be cancerous. These checks are equally as important as the pelvic exam for women of all ages.
Aside from the scheduled annual visit, healthcare professionals recommend that a woman visit her gynecologist if she has questions or problems at any other time. For example, if she has any problems or concerns with birth control, menstruation, unexplained pelvic or breast pain, or notices a lump in her breast, she should schedule an appointment as soon as possible. This is true even if she has recently had her annual exam.
If a woman becomes pregnant, she might need to see her gynecologist or obstetrician on a much more frequent basis. As a pregnancy progresses, visits can become more frequent, perhaps even bi-weekly or weekly. This is often a matter of personal preference; not everyone will feel the need for frequent visits, but sometimes it is medically necessary. For example, if the woman or her fetus need monitoring for health reasons, frequent appointments might be required early in the pregnancy.
Some medical professionals recommend a pre-conception visit for a woman who is planning to become pregnant, particularly if there are any congenital diseases, such as spina bifida, in the family. The first few weeks are a crucial time for fetal development, so preparing physically can be a good step towards a healthy pregnancy. In addition, a gynecological visit is a typical first step for a woman who is having trouble conceiving.
During and After Menopause
A common misconception among women is that the need for gynecological visits decreases during or after menopause, but in fact the opposite is true. The risk of certain diseases, including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure, increases with age, and it gets even higher after menopause for women. The ACOB advises that sexually active women continue to have annual gynecological visits until the age of 70.