Doctor separates fact from fiction about women’s health
Why is a gynecologist so important for a woman’s health at any age? Do I need an annual Pap smear? Does the COVID-19 vaccine cause infertility? In our Community Conversation, Diana Contreras, MD, medical director of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health for Atlantic Health System, answered these and other questions, clearing up some common misconceptions and sharing how women can make the most of their relationship with their doctor.
Why is having a gynecologist so important?
Women need a gynecologist at every stage of life. Dr. Contreras said that women should begin a relationship with a gynecologist at the age of their first menstrual cycle.
- As women seek out birth control, a gynecologist can help guide them through different options to find what works best.
- As women begin to consider starting a family, a gynecologist can advise on fertility, healthy pregnancy, and post-partum wellness.
- As women mature, other health and wellness issues can arise, such as painful intercourse, urinary issues and family planning.
At every stage of life, a trusted gynecologist who will listen and support your needs is an essential component of your overall health care.
Do women need both a primary care physician and a gynecologist?
Dr. Contreras said women should access health care options based on their individual needs.
“If you're a person who has diabetes and blood pressure issues and needs a primary care doctor to take care of those, great, but that doesn't mean you're not also having issues with your periods or with urinary issues or other things and that's where a gynecologist really fits in. If you're not having any of those chronic medical problems and you want to use your gynecologist as your primary care person, that's great, too, because they can take care of those issues as well.”
Is it important to have a gynecologist later in life?
Dr. Contreras reiterated that women need a gynecologist at every age. She encouraged women to talk to their physician about issues such as anxiety, sleeping, depression and vaginal dryness that often occur during the perimenopausal period. As women move into menopause, they may experience hot flashes and mood swings that are difficult to understand. She added, “That's why it's really important that everyone have a gynecologist because that's the person you trust with all these kinds of feelings that are sometimes hard to share with people and to share with another physician.”
As women age into their 70s, is it still necessary to have an annual pap smear and mammogram?
These tests are based on a person’s individual circumstances and should be decided in concert with a gynecologist who knows your personal medical history, Dr. Contreras stated.
Can women in their mid-60s still have menopause-related symptoms?
“Absolutely” said Dr. Contreras, “and I think it's really important (to know). People assume that you're up here and you drop right into menopause, like you crossed the finish line in a race.”
She explained that having a long relationship with your gynecologist enables both of you to follow your unique experience with menopause and react to changes in your body.
If someone hasn’t visited a gynecologist in many years and they are afraid of bad news, why is it important to overcome their fear and make an appointment?
Dr. Contreras urged those who have not visited a gynecologist to make an appointment to get a routine exam. She said the chance of receiving bad news is slim. It is more important to be aware of your health status and to give your physician the opportunity to explore why you feel uncomfortable visiting a doctor.
She added, “Being a gynecologist, we're here to help women get through all the different phases of life and we really want to help.”
Is it possible to get pregnant after the age of 40?
Women can get pregnant until they stop having periods and stop ovulating.
Dr. Contreras explained that ovulation is when the egg comes out of the ovary and then travels through the uterus where it can meet a sperm.
It becomes more difficult to get pregnant when you get older, but there are ways a gynecologist can help.
“It's empowering (for) every woman to be informed, to be educated, and to really decide what she wants. And I think that's really the critical part about having a gynecologist. It's empowering women to own their health,” she said.
Does the COVID-19 vaccine cause infertility?
The COVID-19 vaccine does not cause infertility. Dr. Contreras said the science is clear on this issue and that there is no evidence that infertility and the vaccine are linked.
Every major medical association, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society of Reproductive Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization concur. Dr. Contreras mentioned a recent study of more than 130,000 women who received the vaccine either before they were pregnant or during their pregnancy with no adverse outcomes for the women or the babies.
Finally, Dr. Contreras said that women who contract COVID-19 during pregnancy are at higher risk for negative outcomes, so it is important to receive a vaccine.
What do pregnant women face if they contract COVID-19?
Dr. Contreras said that pregnant women who contract COVID-19 are more likely to a have a severe case of the virus and have an increased risk for premature birth. Babies born to mothers with COVID-19 are also at higher risk for complications. She reiterated the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Schedule an appointment >
What is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)?
Dr. Contreras said ACOG is a trusted resource for doctors and patients for information on women’s health. This professional membership organization certifies all OB/GYNs in the United States. She also mentioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health system websites as additional science-based resources on the internet.
What is the difference between a gynecologist and an OB/GYN?
A gynecologist is a doctor with special training and education in women’s health. An obstetrician is a doctor who cares for women during their pregnancy and labor. Some doctors are certified in both fields and they are called obstetrician-gynecologists (OB/GYN).
What is the relationship between a woman and her OBGYN during pregnancy?
Dr. Contreras said that it is important for both the mother and the baby to be represented during pregnancy and that a trusted relationship with an OB/GYN can help to support and protect both.
“What's good for the baby may not be good for mom. And what's good for mom may not be good for the baby. But the only person who can really help you to navigate that is your OB/GYN, because that OB/GYN has both mom’s and baby's interests at heart. And it's a unique relationship in medicine where you have two people to take care of.”
Can I talk with a gynecologist about uncomfortable topics?
A gynecologist can be a trusted confidant for your health care questions and concerns, especially if they are uncomfortable.
Dr. Contreras said, “I would argue that gynecologists are here to talk about those uncomfortable things. Many of them have to do with intercourse, vaginal dryness, menopause, anxiety, depression, weight loss…”
She added that it is important to establish a trusted relationship with your gynecologist through every stage of your life.
How is urinary incontinence treated?
There are several treatment options for urinary incontinence, some are medical, others are surgical.
Dr. Contreras said your gynecologist is the best person to help you explore and navigate the various options and decide which is right for your unique circumstances.
If a nipple in your breast is inverted, is that something to be alarmed about?
Again, Dr. Contreras said that because each patient is unique, it is important to have a longstanding relationship with a gynecologist, who can diagnose the issue and help you manage the condition.
Is a gynecological exam every two years enough for older women?
Dr. Contreras said that in general, women should have an annual gynecological exam, regardless of age. Building a relationship with a gynecologist will help determine what is reasonable for each individual patient.
At what age can you stop seeing your gynecologist?
A gynecologist is not just a physician who deals with pregnancy and birth control, but rather is a supportive health care partner for every stage of life, according to Dr. Contreras. She described the relationship as “… a lifelong trusted experience with somebody who cares about you as a person and as a woman.”
She reiterated: “Get out there and be healthy and enjoy life. And we want to help you to enjoy life and not have worries or fear about things that we can help.”