It happens every time you visit your gynecologist: You’re asked a bunch of questions that seem kind of silly, like “Have you been bleeding heavily lately?” and “Have you had any weird or unusual discharge?” It sounds odd—after all, wouldn’t you call to be seen ASAP if you did?—but experts say these seemingly minor things are actually really important for your doctor to know about. What’s more, women often don’t speak up about them.
“You would be amazed at how many women don’t report these things,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Sometimes people confuse the concept of ‘common’ and ‘normal’—just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s normal. A lot of people aren’t aware that there are solutions to seemingly minor problems, and sometimes they can be a sign of something serious.”
While you don’t want to freak out and call your doc every time you notice your period lasted a day longer than usual, you also don’t want to fail to mention a symptom that can be important. “One of the tougher things for patients to decipher is when and what kind of symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. “I always tell people to err on the side of caution because it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
So, how do you know which symptoms need to be flagged for your doctor and which are no biggie? Experts say you should definitely speak up if you notice these:
- Unusual bleeding
Mid-cycle spotting here and there is worth mentioning to your doctor at your next visit (it could simply be caused by your birth control), but you should call if you notice persistent bleeding accompanied by pain. “It could be an indication of an infection, like chlamydia, or it may be that there’s a polyp on your cervix, which isn’t serious. But if you don’t do anything about it, it could become an issue,” Streicher says.
- Persistent abdominal pain
If you’re having a lot of pain in your lower abdomen and aren’t sure if you should come in, it’s best to just make an appointment. “There are certain judgment calls you can’t make over the phone,” Streicher says. “Sometimes you need to get in there.” It could be nothing, but it could also be a sign of ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or an ectopic pregnancy—“all things that need medical attention,” Wider says.
And don’t wait to call: While you may think it makes sense to wait to see how your pain progresses throughout the day, calling your ob/gyn’s office at 5 P.M. in severe pain pretty much guarantees you’ll be told to go to the ER. “But if you call in the morning, we can do an ultrasound,” Streicher says.
- An unusual odor
If you notice a funky smell down south that doesn’t go away or get better, call your doctor. Sherry Ross, M.D., ob/gyn and women’s health expert at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells SELF that a forgotten tampon is the most common cause of this, and that can increase the risk of infection and the extremely rare toxic shock syndrome. Basically, you’ll want to get that checked out ASAP to lower your risk.
- Weird discharge
If you just notice your discharge is a little different for one or two days, it’s likely nothing to worry about. But if you keep having strange discharge, it’s time to see your ob/gyn. Why? It could be a sign of a vaginal infection or a forgotten tampon. Of course, if you think it’s a yeast infection and you’ve had them before, it’s OK to use an OTC yeast infection medication. But if you’re not sure, it’s definitely best to check in with a medical professional.
- Repeat pain during sex
Sex shouldn’t be painful, but sometimes the occasional lack of lube can make it a little uncomfortable. However, if you find that this is happening regularly, it could be a sign of infection, hormonal issues, uterine fibroids, or vaginal dryness, all of which your doctor can address, Wider says.
Bottom line: If you notice the odd, weird symptom that doesn’t last, it’s probably OK to wait until your next visit to mention it to your doctor.
But if you’re in pain and/or it’s persistent, schedule an appointment. “Persistent and severe are the two big things,” Streicher says. “There’s a big difference between something that goes away and doesn’t recur and symptoms that last.”
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