Here's Why Not to Fear Your Gyno: Debunking the Myths
I remember my first visit to the gynecologist like it was yesterday. Probably because it struck a blow for both sexual health and fashion. Like everyone else, I had no idea what to expect or indeed what to do. I was 18 and told to undress, put on the itchy hospital gown, then lie down on the exam table and put my feet in stirrups. I did what I was told but when the nurse reentered the room I noticed she was stifling a laugh. I’d left my high heel boots on. Apparently, she’d never seen anyone do that before – “most people take their shoes off,” she chirped. Well, how was I to know? “There should be a sign or something”, I muttered under my breath, before reluctantly taking them off.
Here’s the thing about gynecologists: like them or loathe them, if you have a vagina you’re duty bound to pay them a visit. That’s just the house rule, no matter what your race, religion, nationality or creed. You should start visiting when you become sexually active, or even when you start your menstrual cycle. The problem is that visiting an OB-GYN (obstetrics and gynecology) can feel daunting, with a simple lack of understanding being the main reason. Think about it, were you ever sat down and taught about how an appointment with a gynecologist should go? I wasn’t. My Sex Education teachers all seemed way too busy trying to wrestle condoms onto bananas. As a result, the void of information has been filled by myth and miscommunication – the result being that many women fear being judged or belittled so much that they just don’t go, often leading to serious health issues further down the road. So, pull up a pew and let’s go through it together with some expert advice from Dr Sura Thamer Alwan, Specialist Obstetrician Gynaecologist at Medcare Women and Children Hospital, Dubai.
The Myth: You need to strip completely naked during your first examination
The Truth: At no stage will you be standing in front of your doctor completely naked. A gown is given to protect your modesty. “The initial appointment with the gynecologist is more of an introduction and evaluation of the clinical history,” explains Dr Alwan. “This is often detailed and may require information about a woman’s sexual health. It is then followed by a full clinical examination. All the documented information remains confidential.” While the first gynecological examination will also include the palpation of the breasts (aka a breast examination), you will only have one half your body uncovered at a time.
The Myth: A vaginal examination is painful
The Truth: While everyone has different pain thresholds, it is not painful. Mostly the examination is just uncomfortable, and also a little bit cold. There are a few unusual looking instruments used during an examination. Vaginal speculums are the most common. A duck-bill-shaped device that comes in different sizes. The type used on you by the doctor will depend on your age and the length and width of your vagina. Before the speculum is inserted the doctor will locate your cervix and detect the vaginal angle by using their finger. The speculum will then be inserted and opened. If having a pap smear the doctor will then use a brush/spatula to scrap some cells. You’ll feel a slight pinch but no pain. Forceps and clamps are used more for other obstetrics and gyno surgery such as uterine and caesarian birthing, and hysterectomy. You can ask your doctor for the use of shorter forceps if you are uncomfortable. In the rare case you do ever experience pain you must inform your doctor as this could be a sign of another problem.
The Myth: You should use scented cream on your vagina to mask smells before an examination
The Truth: Washing before a visit is one thing but avoid creams. Dr Alwan explains, “Use of intravaginal products prior to examination can hamper the quality of tests that may need to be conducted during the visit.” If you are worried because you have an issue with vaginal odors, then simply explain this to the doctor. Whether it’s itchy, smelly or burning, your doctor needs to know in order to find the cause and cure.
The Myth: Your gynecologist will tell your family about your sexual history
The Truth: “As per the medical ethics, all medical information should be considered confidential.” This means anything you say should and will be between you and your doctor, so it is important not to lie about your sexual health. These doctors have heard it all – nothing you say will phase them. They need to know the truth so they can help you properly. The type of questions you can expect to be asked include when was your first period? How regular is your period? Are you sexually active? How many people have you slept with? Do you use condoms? Are you sleeping with multiple people? Do you feel discomfort during or after intercourse? Approximately 30% of women experience pain during sex – often the issue you are too embarrassed to talk about is something shared by many.
The Myth: You can visit a gynecologist at any time, regardless of your period
The Truth: “The best time for a gynecology appointment is always after the period,” explains Dr Alwan, who adds, “unless it is an emergency situation” then visit as soon as you can.
The Myth: You should start visiting a gynecologist when you are sexually active
The Truth: The reality is all women should visit a gynecologist when they start their menstrual cycle (whether they have had sexual intercourse or not) – it’s not just about sexual health, it’s also about understanding your feminine health. “Seeing a gynecologist is no longer a concept of vaginal examination alone,” adds Dr Alwan. “Adolescent gynecology has now become a routine practice, as young girls want to start their reproductive lives in a healthy manner.”
The Myth: A pap smear will reveal if you have an STD
The Truth: “A pap smear is only an evaluation of cellular changes in the cervix. It does not directly reveal any confirmation of STD, but it can alert the doctors to further look for STD by additional tests,” explains Dr Alwan. You should start pap smear testing once you become sexually active, and then have regular checkups. Dr Alwan, adds, “The frequency of the follow up smears is decided by the healthcare provider, as it may vary in different parts of the world.”
The Myth: Being on birth control for a long time can decrease your fertility
The Truth: “This is a false statement, as the birth control pills do not have a direct impact on the long-term fertility status of a woman,” says Dr Alwan. “There is an acceptable steady deterioration of the fertility status in relation to a woman’s age, but not because she may have been on birth control pills.” That said, taking the pill on a long-term basis can lead to other health complications, so it’s important to always check with your physician.
The Myth: You can lose your virginity through a cervical screening test
The Truth: Losing one’s virginity can only be achieved via sexual intercourse, regardless of having a hymen. A cervical screening test will not affect someone’s virginity.
The Myth: Sexual intercourse should be avoided before an appointment
The Truth: “Intercourse has no relevance to the gynecology examination,” says Dr Alwan.
The Myth: A woman should completely shave her pubic hair before a gynecological examination
The Truth: The gynecologist will examine your external genitalia (while wearing latex gloves). They will examine your vulva before checking internally inserting a lubricated speculum (duck-bill-shaped device) into your vagina to check for any abnormalities such as cysts, erosions, or irritations. Pubic hair does not affect any of these processes. Dr Alwan confirms, “There is no need for shaving before the gynecology examination.”
The Myth: A vaginal examination in pregnant women can cause a miscarriage
The Truth: “This is the most popular misconception faced by any gynecologist,” says Dr Alwan. “This is a completely unfounded belief. A vaginal examination is safe in early pregnancy and transvaginal ultrasound is more accurate in evaluating an early pregnancy and its ultrasound complications.”
Hopefully, you now realise that visiting a gyno isn’t embarrassing or daunting, but it might just save your life. Whether you’re sexually active or not, feminine care must be an essential part of your selfcare routine. So, remember to book those regular appointments and annual exams, and just don’t forget to remove your shoes before tackling those stirrups.