How to Perform a Vaginal Self-Exam

Benefits, Limitations, and Risks

While not recommended by medical professionals, some women give themselves vaginal and cervical self-exams. Supporters of these exams say they help women learn what is normal, allowing women to more quickly recognize changes—a way that you can get to know your body better.

Disposable gynecological speculum
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A vaginal self-examination is a way to look at your vulva and vagina to better understand your body and to spot problems that may need medical attention. It is not diagnostic since few vaginal diseases can be diagnosed visually.

A vaginal self-exam is not the same as a vulvar examination. When using the term vagina, many people think of the external genitals; however, examining the outside area would be performing a vulvar exam.

Vulvar exams are easier to perform and can detect physical abnormalities that could be caused by genital herpes or HPV. If you see something abnormal on or near your vulva or labia, you should follow up with your healthcare provider for appropriate testing.

A vaginal self-exam should never be considered a substitute for an annual pelvic exam, during which a Pap smear and other tests can detect abnormal changes in cervical and vaginal cells.

Performing a Vaginal Self-Exam

To perform a vaginal self-exam, you will need a strong light such as a flashlight, a mirror, a vaginal lubricant, antiseptic soap or alcohol, and a plastic speculum. Speculums are available at pharmacies that sell medical supplies.

Here is how to do it:

  1. Find a place to relax. This can be the floor or your couch, wherever you can feel comfortable.
  2. Lie back.
  3. Bend your knees, with your feet wide apart.
  4. Lubricate the speculum, and insert it into your vagina in the closed position. Experiment to find the most comfortable position for inserting the speculum.
  5. Once the speculum is inserted, grab the shorter section of the handle and firmly pull it toward you until it opens inside your vagina.
  6. Push down on the outside section until you hear a click while keeping a firm hold on the speculum. The speculum is now locked in place.
  7. Place the mirror at your feet so that you can see your vagina. Move the speculum, while shining the flashlight into the mirror, until you can see your cervix and vaginal walls in the mirror.
  8. Take note of the color of your cervix, as well as any vaginal secretions.
  9. Remove the speculum, after your examination is complete, either in the closed or open position whichever is most comfortable for you.
  10. Thoroughly wash the speculum with antiseptic soap or alcohol and store for your next self-exam.

Some people find it easier to have a friend or partner hold the mirror during the exam. Generally speaking, it is best to avoid self-exams during menses as it may be harder to visualize changes or abnormalities.

Limitations and Concerns

There may be many reasons why a person may choose to perform a vaginal self-exam. It may be to learn more about their own body or to detect changes indicative of ovulation or pregnancy. For example, the cervix may turn a bluish color during pregnancy (known as Chadwick's sign).

Vaginal secretion may thin during ovulation or thicken once fertilization and egg implantation has occurred. Changes in color and texture can indicate an infection. Sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia may manifest with redness, itching, pain, and cervical swelling. Yeast infections may have a cottage-cheese-like discharge and swelling of the labia.

If you find an abnormality, do not self-diagnose and treat with over-the-counter or home remedies based on that conclusion. See a healthcare provider and go through appropriate diagnostic procedures.

On the other hand, if you don't find any abnormalities, this is not a reason to assume you are "all clear." You should still see your healthcare provider for regular screenings and check-ups.

Even healthcare providers can draw few conclusions from a pelvis exam when used in isolation. Bacterial vaginosis and genital herpes may the only exceptions, but, even so, the exam is only around 39% and 48% effective, respectively, in making the correct diagnosis.

A vaginal self-exam is neither recommended nor effective in detecting cervical cancer or precancerous changes. These can only be detected through Pap screening and other direct diagnostic tests.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What type of lubricant is used on a speculum?

    Your healthcare provider may use a water-based lubricant to ease discomfort during a pelvic exam. These lubricants (like K-Y Jelly) reduce fiction and are similar to the body’s own fluids. Your healthcare provider may not use any lubricant, though. 

  • What do I check for during a pelvic self exam?

    Look for signs of irritation or problems such as discoloration, sores, bumps, or painful areas around the outside of your vagina (the vulva), the inside walls of your vagina, and the cervix if you're able to see it with a mirror. If you see anything that seems unusual, see your healthcare provider for a full exam and pap smear.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michigan Medicine. Vaginal self-examination.

  2. Cedars Sinai. Pregnancy.

  3. MedlinePlus. Sexually transmitted diseases.

  4. MedlinePlus. Vaginitis.

  5. Workowski KA, Bolan GA. Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines. MMWR Recomm Rep.

  6. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Cervical cancer: Screening.

  7. VandenBerg N, Prasad S. Easing the discomfort of a speculum exam. J Fam Pract. 2012;61(9):E1-3.

  8. National Vulvodynia Association. National Vulvodynia Association. Vulvar Self-Examination.

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.