OBGYN Visits Are Important At Each Stage Of Life
From teenagers to seniors, women of all ages schedule their annual visit with their obstetrician and gynecologist (OBGYN), for different reasons. Throughout the course of a woman’s life, a woman’s OBGYN may treat her for a variety of medical issues, deliver her children and discuss a variety of topics from contraception to menopause. A woman’s OBGYN becomes her physician, her friend and confidant.
Although it is not unusual for a woman in her 20s to visit her OBGYN for the first time, ideally annual OBGYN visits should begin at age 13 to 15. “From an early age, it is important for a young woman to get comfortable with an OBGYN they can trust,” says Dr. Vanessa Cloutier Thibodeaux, a practicing OBGYN at East Jefferson General Hospital. “There are so many changes taking place in a girl’s body during adolescence and early adulthood that it is essential that she learn as soon as possible to take responsibility for her health.”
As Dr. Thibodeaux explains, annual gynecological exams serve at least three main purposes:
- Information: OBGYNs provide accurate information and confidential answers to any questions a woman may have concerning sex, sexuality, her changing body and menstruation.
- Prevention: Early on, it is essential that a young woman learns about healthy lifestyles, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and contraceptive options.
- Treatment: When a women experiences missed menstrual cycles, pain or other reproductive problems, her OBGYN can investigate why the problems are occurring and offer options for treatment. This may include inquiring about a woman’s family history, such as other family members who may have had heavy menstrual cycles, anemia, surgeries, cancer, diabetes or other chronic illnesses.
“From ages 15 to 21, the annual OBGYN visit is usually more of a conversation than an exam,” Dr. Thibodeaux explains. “In most cases, a pelvic exam is not necessary. We’ll talk with young women in this age group about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Regardless if the patient is sexually active or not, she likely will be in the future. It’s important to arm young women with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from infections and unplanned pregnancy.”
By the age of 21, the focus of the OBGYN visit shifts to prevention. The recommendation is that women have their first pap smear by age 21 and then continue to have pap smears every three years between the ages of 21 and 30 to test for cervical cancer. “OBGYN visits for women ages 22 to 44 will include a breast exam, abdominal exam and a pelvic exam,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “Referred to as the family planning years, at this stage in life we’ll discuss plans for having children, check for abnormalities, such as lumps or painful areas, and discuss any health concerns. We will also check your blood pressure and body mass index, and talk about nutrition, exercise and weight management to help reduce your risk for Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Because a majority of my patients in this age group are interested in pregnancy prevention or becoming pregnant, we will discuss pregnancy planning, fertility options, preconception counseling and contraception options to find what options work best for you.”
Starting at age 30, women should begin getting tested for human papillomavirus. Common among this age group, HPV often has no symptoms. If left untreated, some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer, genital warts or head and neck cancer. “Although we now have an HPV vaccine, it’s relatively new, and many women in this age group may not have received it as a child,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “We usually do the HPV test at the same time and from the same sample as the pap smear.”
The current guideline recommends that the HPV test is done every three to five years as long as the pap smear is normal and HPV is not present. If there are any abnormalities with the pap smear, your OBGYN will determine how often you should come back for testing. “During this stage, many women may develop ovarian cysts that come and go with their menstrual cycle,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “If your doctor feels a cyst or lump in your abdomen during your pelvic exam, an abdominal (outside the body) or transvaginal (inside the vagina with an ultrasound wand) ultrasound may be ordered. It is preferable to wait until after the patient’s period to do an ultrasound because functional cysts may go away after a cycle. If we give the patient an exam after her period and find a cyst, we know it may signal a more significant problem.”
The average age of menopause is 51, however from age 45 to 54, women may begin to have irregular or heavy periods. “At this stage in life, a woman’s hormones may be fluctuating, leading to typical menopause symptoms, such as night sweats, mood swings and hot flashes,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “There are many options to treat these symptoms, including recommending lifestyle changes (diet and exercise), medication or hormone replacement therapy.”
According to The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s recommendation, women should start getting a mammogram at age 40. If there’s a strong family history of breast cancer, such as a mother or sibling, the recommendation is to start mammograms roughly 10 years prior to the age the relative had breast cancer.
Past age 55, women often encounter more issues with hormone changes. “Vaginal dryness and decreased sexual desire can occur, and we will discuss the treatment for these issues,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “OBGYN visits should start well before family planning and should not end after the reproductive years. It’s vital for women to pay attention to their health needs to promote wellness through all stages of life.”
On why she became a doctor: “While in middle school and high school, I faced several health challenges that required a series of doctors’ appointments with different physicians,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “I was frustrated and unhappy until I met a doctor who actually took the time to explain my condition and taught me how to clear up the issue with the right regimen. I remember thinking that this is what I want to do. I want to be like her.”
On why she loves being an OBGYN doctor: “I find being an OBGYN lends the perfect balance of an ongoing doctor-patient relationship — medicine as well as surgery,” Dr. Thibodeaux says. “Because I see my patients annually, we develop a close bond. Of course, with my pregnancy patients, the bond is more pronounced because we are seeing each other regularly for nine-plus months, and together, we bring new life into this world. What I truly love about being an OBGYN is that there’s never a dull moment. Every day is different, and I’m always learning new techniques and new treatment options, and I get to work with a great team here at EJGH. A team that remains focused on safety, patient satisfaction and quality care.”
Vanessa Cloutier Thibodeaux, M.D.
East Jefferson Women’s Health
4228 Houma Blvd., Ste. 410
Metairie, LA 70006
University: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
Medical School: Louisiana State University, New Orleans
Residency: University Medical Center, New Orleans