What is a women’s health exam?

Medically reviewed on February 15, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Women’s health exams are an essential part of your health. Also called pelvic exams, gynecological exams, or well-woman exams, these health visits are pivotal for anyone with a uterus, breasts, or vulva, regardless of your gender identity. They generally occur annually, and most people have their first visit around age 13 to 15 [1].

A woman’s health exam will vary based on factors, particularly your age, sexual history, and medical history. While the exact process may have some slight variations, here is what you can expect from a well-woman exam.

Learn more about the at-home hormone test for women


General Health

Most all women’s health exams start with evaluating your general health. This can be measured with an at-home test or a regular physical exam with your doctor. During a health exam, your weight, height, and blood pressure. If you’re under 18, you may receive shots or vaccinations, like the HPV vaccine [1].

You can also talk to your doctor about your period, especially if you notice that your periods have become irregular, painful, or heavier than usual. If you are sexually active, you can also ask your doctor about birth control options and get tested for any sexually transmitted diseases [1].

Have you noticed any other irregularities, such as lack of concentration or hair loss? If so, it might be time to speak with a doctor about taking a hormone test that will provide better insight into how to balance hormones overall.

Questions from Your Doctor

Your doctor or nurse will typically ask a wide range of questions about your medical history and your family’s medical history. This establishes your needs and helps the doctor provide better care for you, so try to be as honest and thorough as possible [1]. Questions may include:

  • When was your last period, and how long did it last?
  • Have you experienced any unusual pain, discomfort, or discharge from your vulva or vagina?
  • Do your family members have any medical problems?
  • Are you using birth control? [1]

Your doctor will also ask about any drug or alcohol use, illnesses, allergies, smoking, and any surgeries you’ve undergone. These can all sound tangential or like they don’t apply to anything, but these are all things that can affect your reproductive health [1].

Pelvic Exam

Once you turn 21, a pelvic examination will become a regular part of your visits. The exam is a way to examine your vulva and all your internal reproductive organs, ensuring that they are all healthy and normal. The exam consists of a few different parts:

External exam

The exam starts with a simple look at your vulva and the opening of your vagina. The doctor or nurse can quickly identify cysts, genital warts, abnormal discharge, irritation, or other potential issues [2].

Speculum exam

This portion of the exam involves a tool called a speculum, which is inserted into the vagina and separates the walls of the vagina. This can feel strange or slightly uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel painful. If it does feel painful, tell your doctor or nurse immediately. They can then change the positioning or size of the speculum [2].

The speculum exam allows the doctor to collect samples for tests. They may use a small brush or spatula to collect cell samples from the cervix and send them to a lab for a Pap test. This test can identify precancer or early signs of cervical cancer [2].

If your doctor is testing for STDs, they can also take discharge samples from your cervix using a cotton swab [2].

Bimanual exam

During this part of the exam, the nurse or doctor will insert one or two gloved and lubricated fingers into your vagina. With their other hand, they will gently press down on your lower abdomen. This gives the doctor information about the size, shape, and position of your uterus. It can help identify any tenderness or pain, which can point to infections or other issues. The bimanual exam can also identify enlarged ovaries or fallopian tubes, tumors, or ovarian cysts [2].

Rectovaginal exam

The doctor or nurse may also insert a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum. This is a means of identifying tumors behind your uterus, in your rectum, or on the lower wall of your vagina. This is also a means of checking the muscles and tissues between the vagina and rectum more thoroughly [2].

Pelvic exams typically only take a few minutes, and while they aren’t painful, it can be easy to feel tense or uncomfortable during the process. The doctor or nurse will usually talk you through the whole process. If the exam hurts at any point or if you feel extreme discomfort, say so. The doctor can usually make things more comfortable. Remember, this is your exam, so don’t be afraid to make yourself known [2].

You may not need a pelvic exam during every annual wellness exam. It largely depends on your medical history, history of sexual health issues, and what your doctor recommends [2].

While they can seem intimidating, a women’s health exam and screening test are a crucial part of your overall health. Getting checked annually can detect any potential issues before they get worse, and these exams can provide overall peace of mind. For more information, visit Everlywell today and consider trying our at-home hormone test for women.

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1. Wellness Visit. Planned Parenthood. URL. Accessed February 15, 2022.

1. What is a pelvic exam? Planned Parenthood. URL. Accessed February 15, 2022.

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