Physical examinations for women
Pelvic and breast exams
A pelvic exam is an important part of your annual exam. It is a way for your health care provider to check your female organs and make sure they are healthy. The exam is usually not painful, but it may sometimes be a little uncomfortable. During the exam, you may be tested for cervical cancer (this is called a Pap test) and sometimes STDs.
A breast exam is another important part of your annual exam. Your health provider will check your breasts for any unusual lumps or changes that could signal cancer. Your provider will also talk to you about the importance of checking your own breasts every month. This is called breast self-exam (BSE). Women who do monthly BSEs have a much better chance of finding breast cancer early, while it's still very treatable. BSE is easy and only takes a few minutes. Learn about BSE's through the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation website.
The Pap test
The Pap test is a special test done during a woman's annual pelvic exam. It allows the health provider to find out if cervical cancer or pre-cancer changes may be starting to grow on a woman's cervix. This type of cancer can be treated very successfully if it is found early. In fact, the Pap test can prevent at least 70% of cervical cancers! That's why it's so important to get a pelvic exam every year.
How is the Pap test done?
During your pelvic exam, your health provider will gently scrape your cervix with a tiny brush to get a sample of cervical cells for testing. This test is very quick and should not be painful.
Who should have a Pap test?
Women 21 years and older should have a Pap test every year. After a woman has normal pap tests for 3 years in a row she then only needs to have a pap test at least once every 3 years. This is true for all women, including lesbian and bisexual women and women who have never had sexual intercourse.
Does the Pap test also test for STDs?
No. The Pap test only tests for cervical cancer or pre-cancer changes on your cervix. There are different tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) tests
During your annual pelvic exam, your health care provider can test you for two common types of STDs: gonorrhea and chlamydia, if you are at risk for these STDs.
How are the STD tests done?
To do the tests, your provider will use a soft cotton swab to collect a sample of fluid from your vagina or your cervix. This is very quick and painless. Both gonorrhea and chlamydia are easily treated when they are diagnosed early.
Will my provider automatically test me for STDs during my annual exam?
Some health care providers don't test for STDs during an annual exam unless you tell them you have symptoms of an infection. However, many STDs don't have symptoms. If you think you might be at risk for an STD, make sure to tell your health care provider.
REMEMBER: It's important to be honest with your provider about your sexual behavior - even though it might be embarrassing. The information you provide will help your provider give you the best care possible, and it will not be shared with anyone else unless you give permission.
Other STD tests
If you have questions about other common STDs (like herpes or genital warts) and the tests used to diagnose them, visit the Public Health STD website for more information.
STDs and sexual assault
STDs can sometimes be the result of a sexual assault. If you think you may have an STD resulting from a sexual assault and you live in Western Washington, call the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center's Crisis/Information line at 1 (800) 825-7273. Their advocates are willing to answer questions about what STD tests are recommended, how to talk to your health provider about sexual assault, and legal issues.
External links for sexual assault
- Home Alive
Home Alive is a Seattle-based collective non-profit dedicated to ending violence of all types through providing low cost & free self-defense classes.
- King County Sexual Assault Resource Center
24 hr crisis intervention, legal advocacy for all sexual assault victims, counseling child victims of sexual assault. Education & training.
24-hour sexual assault resource line: 1-888-99-VOICE (1-888-998-6423) -- toll free in Washington State.
- Anti-Harassment Trainers assembled by Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Office of Civil Rights
- Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs
- King County Crisis Clinic
- Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape
- Safe Schools Coalition of Washington
Safe Schools works to make schools safe for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, educators and parents. Free staff training. Intervention for students who are being harassed.
- United States Department of Education's Regional Office for Civil Rights