Signs you should make an appointment with your gynecologist

It can be intimidating to read about potential health issues. If you're prone to paranoia (and who isn't now that Google has given us the ability to self-diagnose?), you will be convinced that something is wrong even if everything is okay.

In all probability you are just fine, but — in the off-chance that you're not — it's worth taking a few moments to read through this. You could see something that could save your life. Here are some signs that you should make an appointment with your gynecologist.

You've hit puberty

That first appointment with a gynecologist can be intimidating and, unfortunately, many young women end up putting it off. While this might be okay for most, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends that teenage girls be seen somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15.

The visit allows the medical professional to identify any warning signs (such as never having a period or irregular cycles) early, giving them time to address any issues sooner than later. Girls who are already sexually active, have discolored or foul-smelling vaginal discharge, or are potentially pregnancy should make an appointment as soon as possible.

You have spotting or bleeding between periods

If you notice that you've been bleeding between periods, it's probably a good idea to be seen by a doctor. Don't panic, of course, but don't put it off either. If there is a serious problem, early intervention is associated with the best outcomes.

Along with pelvic pain, unusual discharge, and discomfort during intercourse, spotting outside of your menstrual cycle could be a sign of cervical cancer. According to the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, more than 90 percent of cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus so, if you've ever tested positive, this is even more reason to seek medical attention.

As Dr. Julian Schink, chief of women's health for Spectrum Medical Group, explained to Prevention, along with spotting, any uncharacteristic discharge could be associated with cervical or fallopian tube cancer and needs to be addressed immediately. "You need to contact your gynecologist right away with any of these symptoms and be very clear while explaining them," he stressed. This is especially true if you've already gone through menopause as post-menopausal women should never have any kind of vaginal bleeding. Spotting can be caused by something relatively minor, such as a hormonal imbalance, but it's better to rule out anything more serious.

Intercourse is painful

There are moments when you might expect a little discomfort during intercourse. The first time, for example, or if you're trying something particularly adventurous. As long as you are informed and taking it slow, these situations shouldn't be cause for alarm. When you start dreading the idea of having sex, feel like you have to stop, or have just lost that loving feeling, it's time to talk to someone.

You could be experiencing a sexual disorder such as insufficient lubrication, vaginismus (when vaginal muscle spasms make penetration difficult), or vulvodynia (caused by hyperactive nerve fibers around the vulva). Fortunately, these can be addressed with medication and other forms of therapy.

Other possible problems include yeast infections, sexually transmitted diseases, fibroids on your uterus, or pelvic inflammatory disease. Since some of these can also affect your intimate partners, it's especially important to seek treatment as soon as you notice a problem.

You've noticed changes in your cycle

While things can vary widely from one woman to another, most of us have a good idea of what to expect from our menstrual cycles in terms of length and heaviness of flow. If you notice any changes, you should probably schedule a checkup.

The Mayo Clinic explains that irregularities can have many causes including pregnancy and breastfeeding, eating disorders, excessive exercise, polycystic ovary syndrome, premature ovarian failure, pelvic inflammatory disease, and uterine fibroids.

Your period is very heavy

Even though one-third of women experience heavy menstrual bleeding, it is not normal. If you have been bleeding for more than seven days, soak through more than one tampon or pad per hour, get up to change your pad or tampon overnight, or see blood clots as large as (or bigger than) a quarter, it's time to make an appointment.

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a number of things can cause a heavier flow ranging from endometriosis, irregular ovulation, and hypothyroidism, to cancer. It can also be associated with miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening condition. Never ignore heavy bleeding, especially if it comes on suddenly.

Your PMS is horrible

Hormonal changes, abdominal cramps, and bleeding will never be a fun experience, but there are some women whose symptoms are so debilitating that it seriously affects their quality of life.

While the reasons for Premenstrual Syndrome are still not well understood, it is believed that fluctuations in serotonin could trigger feelings of depression, fatigue, food cravings, and changes to sleep patterns. Additionally, it has been found that some women with severe PMS have undiagnosed depression which only compounds the problem.

In extreme cases, women could be suffering from an extension of PMS called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. While the symptoms of both conditions are the same, sufferers of PMDD usually also experience feelings of hopelessness, anxiety or tension, extreme moodiness, and anger.

You have excessive bloating

Most of us have dealt with that bloated, full feeling on a monthly basis in the days leading up to and immediately following the beginning of our periods. While some distension is expected (especially if you were planning to wear skinny jeans that day!), there is a point when it warrants our attention.

While the most serious culprit, ovarian cancer, is relatively rare (1 in 70 women will be diagnosed), a rounded belly can be associated with the condition due to a build-up of fluid in the abdomen or a mass on the ovary. 

Dr. Schink told Prevention, "One of the most common signs of ovarian cancer is abdominal bloating. It's more an awareness of discomfort. It's a constant, dull pain, and that's the difference."

You're experiencing burning or itching

If you've ever had a urinary tract infection, you will know that one of its tell-tale signs is itching or burning, especially when urinating. It's the worst, but typically it's nothing that a little cranberry juice and some antibiotics can't fix. Unfortunately, it could also be a sign of something more serious.

While you wait for your appointment, do some exploring. Grab a mirror and check things out. Your vulva should be a pinkish color and, as Dr. Schink explained to Prevention, "It starts with pigment or texture changes." If things seem off in these areas, these are warning signs of vulvar cancer, especially in the presence of white lesions on the vulva.  

However, burning and stinging can also be a sign of Interstitial Cystitis, or Painful Bladder Syndrome. Additional symptoms include pain from the belly button to the lower back and into the thighs and groin. Don't make assumptions about the source of this type of discomfort. As Dr. Heather Gottlieb, a urologist, told Woman's Day, "women often attribute this pain to stomach or gastrointestinal issues, not realizing that their pain originates in the bladder."

You're experiencing excessive or painful urination

We've all had moments where we barely made it (or didn't!) to the toilet in time. Those one-off experiences can be uncomfortable but don't usually cause any lasting damage.

It's entirely different, though, if you are getting up in the middle of the night more than a few times and it's disrupting your sleep. There are several possible causes for this including a mass pressing on your bladder (including the benign but irritating uterine fibroids) and diabetes, which usually also comes along with extreme thirst. As Dr. Schink told Prevention, "It's a partnership: If you're going to the bathroom more often and drinking more often, then a lightbulb should go off in your head that something's not right."

If going to the bathroom is painful, you may be fighting off a urinary tract infection which can affect your kidneys and bladder, among other things. Dysuria (painful urination) can also be a sign of vaginal infections, sexually transmitted infections, or inflammation somewhere in the genital/urinary tract area. A medical professional can help you pinpoint the cause and give you peace of mind.

You have unusual discharge

Hate it or love it, most vaginal discharge is perfectly normal and does an important job. This wonderful fluid moves dead cells and bacteria away from the female reproductive organs and actually helps our vaginas stay clean and free from infection. Yay, discharge!

Some variation is acceptable but, typically, it should be clear to milky white in color when everything is working as it should. There will be more of it, of course, when you are sexually aroused and also when you are ovulating or breastfeeding. Pregnant women might notice a slight change in the smell and this is usually not cause for concern.

You should take note to any consistent changes in color, smell, and consistency, especially if it comes along with itching or burning down below. While it could be caused by antibiotics, steroids, or even birth control pills, it might also be a sign of cervical cancer, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections, vaginal atrophy, or trichomoniasis, a "parasitic infection typically contracted and caused by having unprotected sex."

You have pelvic or abdominal pain

We are so used to cramps and bloating that, sometimes, we might overlook or dismiss pelvic or abdominal pain as par for the course but Dr. Schink explained to Prevention, "Even if it's just vague pain, it's not supposed to hurt down there."

Of course, you don't want to be an alarmist and call your doctor for every ache and pain but you should be mindful of anything "sharp and sudden or dull and lengthy" since this can be a signal of diverticulitis or a mass in the pelvic region.

Further, it could be an indication of endometriosis, a condition involving the growth of uterine tissue outside of the uterus, on the ovaries and pelvic area and can potentially affect a woman's ability to become pregnant and cause significant discomfort. As Dr. Kevin M. Audlin told Woman's Day "endometriosis excision surgery can be performed using laparoscopy, a minimally invasive procedure… while preserving the uterus and fertility whenever possible."

You've never had a period

You are experiencing primary amenorrhea if you've never had a period in your life and you're over 16 years old. This is not the same as having irregular periods but, rather, is the complete absence of a menstrual cycle — ever.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that your doctor may never know why you haven't had a period but some potential causes include problems with the ovaries or reproductive organs, an issue with the central nervous system, or a disturbance within the pituitary gland. Regardless of the cause, it warrants a visit to the gynecologist.

Be proactive

It can be scary to admit that something doesn't seem right, and no one loves putting their feet up in stirrups, but the longer you put things off, the worse the consequences can be. It's better to be proactive and make an appointment with your gynecologist as soon as you notice a problem.

Even if the diagnosis is serious, early intervention and treatment will give you the best chance at recovery and continuing a normal, happy life. Bottom line — love your body and do everything you can to take care of it!