You’d do anything to skip anxiously waiting (in that super stylish paper gown, paging through an out-of-date People magazine) for the gynecologist to swing the door open. Despite your healthcare provider’s sparkling wit and ability to instantly put you at ease—it’s still a place you’d rather avoid.
Sure, you’re diligent about dragging yourself in for your yearly Pap test (right?), but what if something else pops up before or after your scheduled appointment? Check out our short list of reproductive health symptoms that warrant an office visit ASAP.
1. Frozen Vegetables Belong in The Freezer (Not in Your Breasts)
You’re absentmindedly soaping up in the shower, belting out Broadway tunes at the top of your lungs and contemplating if your tights match your sweater—when your hand brushes against something on your left breast that wasn’t there two weeks ago. Your next best step? Keep calm and carry on—right into your doctor’s office. “If you find peas, pearls, or frozen corn type lumps, get them checked,” says Rebecca A. Pinto, a board-certified physician assistant with 20+ years experience in gynecology, adolescent medicine, and primary care.
The best time to schedule an appointment to investigate a worrisome lump or bump “is the week after your menstrual cycle, when your breast tissues are less likely to be swollen, or the day you start your pill, patch, or ring if you’re on hormonal birth control,” says Karin Schlosser, a family nurse practitioner specializing in women’s health.
You can find solace in the fact that the stats are in your favor: Four out of five biopsies for breast lumps aren’t cancerous. But the only way to know for sure is to get yourself into your medical professional for a clinical breast exam.
2. Don’t Be Blind To What You Find (in Your Bathroom): Part 1
If you suspect a bladder infection or urinary tract infection, it’s totally OK to start swigging cranberry juice to get ahead of the curve—a 2010 study concluded that the juice (that launched a thousand cocktails) helps reduce bacteria’s ability to adhere to the cells that line the urinary tract.
But, attempting to self-treat symptoms like burning, foul-smelling, bloody, or frequent urination isn’t a good idea. “C’mon now, don’t be foolish, urinary tract infections travel up and into your kidneys,” says Pinto. A simple course of oral antibiotics will do the trick in treating your infection. Otherwise, Schlosser cautions, “you can quickly go from ‘I don’t feel well’ to ‘I need to be hospitalized for intravenous antibiotics’ with an untreated UTI.”
In short, drink your vodka-free cranberry cocktail while driving to the doctor’s office. And, if you’ve got a fever or back pain—you need to be seen immediately (a.k.a. stop reading this and go now). These could be signs that the infection has already progressed into your kidneys, and an untreated kidney infection can potentially lead to a life-threatening situation.
3. Don’t Be Blind to What You Find (in Your Bathroom): Part 2
There’s no delicate way to discuss vaginal discharge, so we’re just gonna make it plain. If it’s foul-smelling, deep yellow, or green, it’s time to clear your morning schedule for a trip to the clinic.
The discharge may be due to an STD, pelvic infection, retained tampon, or even a side effect of your birth control method. Mirena (a hormonal IUD), Depo-Provera (a contraceptive shot), and Implanon and Nexplanon (contraception that’s implanted in your arm) are known for not-so-fresh smelling discharge, explains Pinto. The only way to know the difference between harmless and potentially harmful? A simple vaginal exam and a quick look at a sample under the microscope, says Schlosser.
4. Pain (and Not in Your Neck)
Your body is fairly adept at telling you when something is wrong—the key is taking time to listen. Pelvic pain (especially pain that gets worse with intercourse) can be indicative of a problem—whether it’s a UTI or something more serious, like PID (pelvic inflammatory disease). PID occurs when bacteria from the vaginal area migrates into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and surrounding tissues. “Often, the cause is gonorrhea or chlamydia, so we’ll get your testing up to date,” Schlosser explains.
Untreated PID may lead to sepsis (a potentially fatal blood infection) or scar your reproductive organs, causing infertility. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that untreated STDs cause at least 24,000 women in the U.S. to become infertile each year. (So also—don’t forget STD screening with a new sexual partner.)
If your provider can’t explain the pain after an exam, an ultrasound may be in order to rule out other issues, like an ovarian cyst.
5. Tampon Terror
You’ve been prepping for months for that tropical tryst with your Valentine—your plan to look smokin’ hot on a warm sandy beach has been getting you through those mornings of sweating, pedaling, and silently cursing your perky spin class instructor. The only problem? Your period. It won’t leave, and you weren’t exactly planning on a party of three.
Vaginal bleeding that lasts more than 10 days is a definite doctor’s appointment, Pinto cautions. It may be caused by a hormonal imbalance or your birth control method, but “even if you’re just starting on Mirena, Implanon, or Depo-Provera, there are things that your clinician can do to help stop the bleeding,” she says. Schlosser notes that it can take up to 12 weeks for your body to adjust to these medications, and your clinician may be able to prescribe a short-term supply of hormones to balance and alleviate spotting or bleeding.
If you’re over 35, longer-than-normal bleeding may also be an indicator for uterine cancer and you may need an endometrial biopsy to rule out that possibility.
The take-away message here is this: You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that burning, blood, discharge, and pain probably aren’t good. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for well-informed women (with insanely busy schedules) to put their health and safety on the back burner. But, until medical science figures out a way to give us a shiny new model when we’ve worn out the brakes on our own, it’s best to slow down and get to the doc for good dose of self-preservation.