One in three women under 30 skip the smear test, mainly because of embarrassment and fear, and perhaps, for some, the first time you’ve had any kind of intimate examination. But you shouldn’t be worried. Take it from me, I’m not shy or squeamish about it, so you don’t have to be. Even my most terrified patients turn to me at the end and say, ‘Oh, it really wasn’t that bad’. So, you can do it!
The reason? It’s so important. Commonly misunderstood as ‘the cervical cancer test’, it’s not actually a test for cervical cancer. In fact, it’s the number one way of preventing the disease. It aims to detect milder, non-cancerous abnormalities that can be treated before they turn into anything nasty.
You need to go every three years from the age of 25 and testing more often or from an earlier age doesn’t offer you any more protection against the disease. There is now a highly effective vaccine against HPV, which is the virus that causes cervical cancer, but even if you’ve had the jab you still need to go for your smear test.
Contraception: more than just the pill
When it comes to contraception, you don’t want to mess around getting bad advice from online influencers and other unqualified folk. The biggest side effect of bad contraceptive advice is an unplanned pregnancy. Most GP surgeries have ‘well woman clinics’ where highly experienced doctors and nurses can talk you through the options. Along with the Pill, there are reliable non-hormonal options out there too. The same service is available at most sexual health clinics, which are not just for STI testing.
Sexual health screening: yes, it’s for everyone
And while we’re on the topic, when was your last STI screen? If you’ve never been tested, you can’t confidently say that you’ve never had an infection, because most people don’t have any symptoms. With drop-in sessions available, you don’t even have to make an appointment and a brilliant online service called SH:24 can even send you a self-test kit through the post. Remember that anyone can have an STI and, as I always tell my patients, ‘although s/he looked clean, you still need to screen…’.
Vaginal discharge: get to know it
As one of the most common ‘Oh, by the way doctor…” questions dropped in at the end of a consultation, vaginal discharge causes so much anguish. It’s completely normal to have discharge, but you need to learn what’s normal for you.
It changes throughout the cycle, from low levels at the start immediately after your period, to a thicker and then creamier in consistency with a white-yellowish colour around the midway point in your cycle, to thin and watery, and then stretchy with an egg-white consistency around ovulation.
But if it’s funny smelling, associated with abdominal pain, blood-stained, itchy or irritating you need to call your GP. We might feel awkward discussing it with our friends but that’s what your doctor is there for. There are plenty of harmless and treatable reasons that can be sorted out without spending hours terrifying yourself with Dr Google.
Top tips for a vagina-related visit
1. You don’t need to wax/pluck/shave. It won’t get in the way and a bit of hair isn’t going to scare me after all the gory things I’ve seen in my time.
2. Learn the lingo. It’s even harder to talk about something if you don’t know the right name for your bits. ‘Vulva’ refers to everything on the outside, ‘vagina’ is the tube on the inside.
3. Know your cycle. I love it when people get their period tracking app out to tell me when their last period was. We’ll usually ask, so to prevent getting flustered it’s helpful to start tracking it, and have it handy during a consultation.
Words by Dr Anita Mitra