A gynecologist is an important partner in every woman's health — whether she's a young adult, post-menopause or anywhere in between.
Still, you may wonder which symptoms and issues warrant seeing one.
Dr. Waverly Peakes, a gynecologist at Houston Methodist, is here to explain when it's time for a visit.
What does a gynecologist do?
A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in women's reproductive health.
That is, a gynecologist is a specialist with expertise treating issues or conditions affecting a woman's reproductive system, including:
- Fallopian tubes
A gynecologist also performs Pap smears, pelvic exams and other types of preventive care that begin at age 21 as part of your annual well-woman exam.
When should you see a gynecologist?
From your well-woman exam to issues that may signal a visit is needed before then, here are seven signs it's time to see a gynecologist.
1. Abnormal or painful periods
Whether it's cramping, bleeding or something else, period symptoms never really feel "normal."
But when are they truly abnormal and worrisome?
"Your period can be affected by many things, from travel and stress to new medications and weight changes," Dr. Peakes explains. "Having a period that's a little heavier or longer than usual every once in a while isn't a huge concern. Usually the cycle will correct itself on its own over the next month or so."
But if the abnormality continues, an appointment with your gynecologist is important.
"If several periods in a row are significantly worse than usual, it could be a sign that something else is going on," warns Dr. Peakes.
Some women develop endometriosis — when uterine tissue gets implanted in the fallopian tubes, ovaries or pelvic lining and causes serious pelvic pain — or uterine fibroids, noncancerous uterine growths that can cause pain and heavier menses.
An abnormal period may look and feel like:
- Heavier-than-usual bleeding
- Heavy cramping with and before the cycle
- Bleeding that lasts longer than a week
- Bleeding that comes, unexpectedly, on other days or weeks
Schedule a visit with your gynecologist if you're frequently getting abnormal periods.
2. Irregular vaginal bleeding
Bleeding between periods isn't always cause for alarm.
For instance, some women have spotting with each ovulation. Other women will experience spotting when starting a new birth control pill. If you miss a dose of your birth control pill, this too can cause irregular bleeding. During the years leading into menopause, lots of women will have cycle irregularity.
There are times when vaginal bleeding is irregular and concerning, including:
- Unexplained bleeding between periods
- Bleeding while pregnant
- Bleeding after menopause
"In particular, we take bleeding after menopause very seriously," Dr. Peakes notes. "Post-menopausal bleeding doesn't always mean cancer, but it can — so we don't take any chances. We try to begin the evaluation very quickly and efficiently."
3. Pelvic pain
Dr. Peakes emphasizes that if you're experiencing pelvic pain during certain activities, like exercise or intercourse, it's definitely time to see your gynecologist.
Other symptoms that may accompany pelvic pain include feeling bloated or a heaviness in your abdomen, and even fever and vomiting in more severe cases.
"Pelvic pain can be a sign of an ovarian cyst, a fluid-filled sac that can form in the ovaries," Dr. Peakes explains. "Many women will wait until the pain is severe enough to send them to the emergency room, where usually a CT scan or pelvic ultrasound will then show the presence of an ovarian cyst."
It's important to follow up on these cysts. Most cysts are benign, but your gynecologist needs to confirm that the cyst does not appear concerning or cancerous.
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can also cause acute pelvic pain. This occurs when infection develops in the uterus and fallopian tubes, and it needs to be treated right away with IV or oral antibiotics to help preserve fertility.
Again, endometriosis can also cause pelvic pain, but the pain is more chronic, developing over months to years.
"There are many ways to treat endometriosis, including both medication and surgery, so a follow-up with your gynecologist is in order at that point," adds Dr. Peakes.
4. Menopause symptoms
"Another very common reason for women to see a gynecologist is to get questions about menopause answered," says Dr. Peakes. "We talk about what symptoms are normal and abnormal, as well as what else to potentially expect during this phase of life."
(Related: When Does Menopause Usually Start?)
Ideally, a woman's hormones are tested prior to consulting a gynecologist about perimenopause, so the appointment can be dedicated to discussing how best to manage the hormonal findings and most significant symptoms.
5. Breast pain or lumps
A mammogram or breast ultrasound is almost always needed to diagnose if a breast pain or a breast lump is serious, but Dr. Peakes says that your gynecologist can help evaluate you in the meantime and help you know the urgency of getting breast imaging.
"Aside from a breast infection while breastfeeding, most breast issues need follow-up evaluation by a radiologist before any diagnosis can be made," Dr. Peakes adds. "But we can feel the lump or assess the pain and help you understand what to do next."
6. Urinary issues
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in women, and your gynecologist is well-versed in helping manage this uncomfortable, annoying issue.
Dr. Peakes says that UTI symptoms can often be assessed and antibiotics can be prescribed over the phone.
"But if you've taken your antibiotics and don't feel like your symptoms are improving, that's worthy of a trip to the clinic," Dr. Peakes says.
While your gynecologist can handle simple UTIs, more complex situations, like recurrent UTIs, will likely result in referral to a urologist.
7. You're due for your well woman exam
A well-woman exam is your annual checkup with your gynecologist.
The visit may also include a Pap smear, breast exam and pelvic exam — depending on your age, recommended screening guidelines and risk for gynecologic issues.
"With HPV testing and vaccination, we don't do a Pap smear every single year for every woman," says Dr. Peakes. "Sometimes every two or three years is sufficient. But this is something your doctor will determine based on your age and individual risk."
And even if you're not due for a Pap smear, don't skip your annual checkup with your gynecologist, Dr. Peakes stresses.
"From regular pelvic and breast exams to recommending the other types of preventive care you may need — like mammograms, bone density testing and colorectal cancer screening — your annual well woman exam is an important way to stay on top of your health," Dr. Peakes says.
She adds that it's also an important chance for you to talk about any other gynecologic concerns you may be experiencing.
For instance, it can be a time to bring up pain during sex, vaginal dryness or odor, bladder issues and other matters.