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After Rape, Getting a Medical Exam is Essential

Immediate Attention Can Address Injuries, Pregnancy and STDs

By Nancy Larson

Updated December 05, 2011

(LifeWire) - More than 10% of American women will experience rape, a violent crime that leaves physical, emotional and psychological scars. After such a personally devastating assault, you can take measures that may help you move through the healing process in each of these areas.

If you have been raped, it may be overwhelming to think about seeking help, but it's extremely important to get immediate medical attention you need.

First Actions are Critical

After a rape or other sexual assault, a woman may understandably be afraid that undergoing a physical exam will seem like yet another violation. Other normal feelings vary from person to person, but these may include:

  • Fear of being judged by doctors or nurses
  • Fear of others finding out about the rape
  • Shame or guilt
  • Numbness
  • Degradation

A woman who's been raped may feel like she is to blame, even though rape is never the victim's fault. She may be in shock and feel like going home, crying, shutting down, sleeping or showering. But despite the urge to wash off the remains of the attack, it is essential that you:

  • Do not bathe or shower.
  • Do not comb or brush your hair.
  • Do not change your clothes or shoes.
  • Do not douche.

Getting a medical exam, which includes a vaginal inspection and blood tests, at a hospital emergency room or other medical facility after you've been raped is important for several reasons:

  • Evidence can be collected. Physical evidence that may identify and convict your rapist can be captured and stored in what's called a rape kit.
  • Internal injuries can be assessed. Some injuries that you can't see or feel can only be detected by examination.
  • Pregnancy can be prevented. If you are not using contraception, morning-after emergency contraceptives that contain progestin-only can be prescribed to greatly decrease the chance of pregnancy. It is highly effective and has fewer side effects than morning-after pills containing both estrogen and progestin.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be treated. Your chances of getting an STD from a rape is 5 to 10%. Doctors can prescribe medicines for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis right away, as give you a Hepatitis B vaccine, if you aren't already vaccinated.

  • HIV can be addressed. Your chances of having contracting HIV from a rape are less than 1%, and likely the virus will not be apparent immediately. But if you do test positive for HIV, the treatment can be started right away.
  • Counseling can begin. Rape crisis therapists are often available for confidential counseling.
  • All information known to medical personnel about you and the rape is protected by the United States federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

    The Rape Kit

    Your chances of successful prosecution depend heavily on the evidence in your rape kit, and you only have one chance to get that evidence -- immediately after the rape. You do not have to decide immediately whether to report the rape to the police. You can collect the evidence and decide later on whether or not to report it to the authorities. When obtaining a rape kit, a medical professional will:

    • Collects any semen left in the victim's vagina, other body fluids and hair
    • Look for clothing fibers and scene evidence, such as grass or soil
    • Take clippings of your fingernails to examine any residue from your attacker or the scene

    This evidence is then marked and stored.

    If you want to refuse any particular test during the exam, you have the right to do so. If you are under 18 and want to keep the information about the rape from your parents, ask whether the laws in your state will allow it.

    Many women report that prosecuting their rapist helps re-establish a sense of control in their lives, aiding in their recovery, according to the Abuse & Incest National Network. Still, deciding whether or when to file a police report is a personal decision.

    You can ask a doctor, nurse or friend to help you report the rape while you are receiving medical care or wait until after the examination. Many local laws have a cutoff date by which the crime has to be reported if it is to be prosecuted.

    Follow-Up Care

    It's important to see a doctor again within a week or two after the attack to receive your blood test results and to treat any resulting injuries.

    Emotional care is also critical. Many rape survivors will experience Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), a collection of emotional responses to the extreme stress of the sexual assault.

    Some survivors openly display their emotions; others may appear calm and detached. Sleeping and eating patterns may change and nightmares commonly occur afterward.

    It's critical that you seek and continue counseling or support groups for as long as you need them. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a online hotline and can be reached by phone at 800-656-HOPE. RAINN offers counseling, as well as other types of help to rape and sexual assault vitims.

    Sources:

    "Health Information Privacy." hhs.gov. 2009. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/hipaa/understanding/consumers/index.html>.



    "Montana Statutes Dealing with Rape Exams." mtforensicnurse.org. 2006. Montana Board of Crime Control. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.mtforensicnurse.org/MTStatutes.html>.



    "Rape." familydoctor.org. Apr. 2008. Anerican Academy of Family Physicians. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/crisis/314.printerview.html>.



    "Rape." ppsev.org. 2008. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.ppsev.org/services/Rape.htm>.



    "Rape Trauma Syndrome." rapevictimadvocates.org. 2008. Rape Victim Advocates. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.rapevictimadvocates.org/trauma.asp>.



    "Reporting Rape." rainn.org. 2008. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.rainn.org/get-information/legal-information/reporting-rape>.



    "Sexual Violence." cdc.gov. 2008. Centers for Disease Control. 21 Jan. 2009 <http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/SV/SVDataSheet.pdf>.


    LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Nancy Larson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in dozens of local and national print and online publications including CNN.com, The Weather Channel, Health magazine and The Advocate.

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