Women’s health – especially when it comes to our hygiene – is a topic that’s not often talked about. When it comes to the inner workings of female sexual organs, we’re often too embarrassed to discuss our issues or discomfort. This can promote silent suffering and self-medicating which can sometimes lead to more complications.
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Whether you’re battling heavy periods or an itch that simply won’t go away, or maybe you’ve had a bad pap smear experience, fear not because we asked the experts to address your concerns.
What your GP really wants you to know about vaginal health:
Don’t assume an itch is thrush
Thrush, a common yeast infection, is just one reason things can get irritated down below. ‘Another common cause is bacterial vaginosis, in which the balance of the bacteria in the vagina becomes imbalanced,’ says Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, a GP with an interest in women’s health. ‘This has a greyer discharge than thrush with a fishy odour, and needs a different type of treatment. Your GP can test to tell the difference, and there are topical creams and antibiotics that can be used.
A smear test shouldn’t be uncomfortable
Speculums are used to open the vagina so your doctor can see the cervix to take a sample. ‘The good news is there is more than one size,’ says Dr Stokes-Lampard. Differently sized speculums can be used to make the test easier for you. Your doctor might even apply a local anaesthetic gel and warm the speculum to make the experience as comfortable as possible (plastic versions can be used instead of those freezing cold metal ones!).
You don’t have to have a period every month
‘You can stop periods with no risks to your health,’ says GP Dr Natalie Atere-Roberts. ‘One way is to go on the pill and take packs back to back, stopping your periods for three months. Skip the placebo pills, then repeat the process – cutting the number of periods you have to four a year.
If you just want to delay one – say, if you’re going on holiday – try a prescription drug called norethisterone. Take it three to four days before your period is due and for as long as you want to delay it, but don’t take it for more than 17 days. Your period will start two to three days after you stop taking the drug.’
Emergency contraception is not guaranteed to be effective
The morning-after pill is a great invention, but it’s not foolproof. ‘There’s some evidence that the morning-after pill might not work as well in obese women,’ says GP Dr Ellie Cannon. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it if needed, even if you are overweight.
Also, watch out if you have sex close to when you should ovulate, adds Dr Sarah Gray, a GP. The morning-after pill works by delaying ovulation, so if you have sex around that time, the pill is likely to be less effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy. Inserting a copper IUD after sex virtually guarantees you won’t become pregnant. And you can use it up to five days after the event’, explains Dr Gray.
Don’t accept vaginal dryness as you age
‘Around menopause, many women start to find sex uncomfortable because of the vaginal dryness that comes from a lack of oestrogen,’ says Dr Atere-Roberts. ‘Hormone replacement therapy can reverse this but if you don’t want to take it in tablet form, ask your GP to prescribe a hormone cream that you use internally to restore the vaginal tissues, making them more moist, less thin and less prone to tearing.
You don’t have to suffer with heavy periods
‘There’s a drug called tranexamic acid that can be bought on prescription that helps reduce heavy periods,’ says Dr Gray. ‘It reduces blood loss by up to 60%. A better solution is the Mirena coil, a contraceptive device that releases progestin hormone. This reduces blood loss by 80-90% and it can prevent pregnancy for up to five years. There are also anti-inflammatory drugs that can help treat heavy periods.’
A physio can help your pelvic floor
‘Many women suffer incontinence as they age or after childbirth, and they find that pelvic-floor exercises don’t help. If these aren’t working, a GP can refer you to a specialist physiotherapist, who will assess the strength of the pelvic floor muscles and see if you’re working them correctly. If not, they can offer various techniques to strengthen different muscles,’ says Dr Gray.
You can test for the virus that causes cervical cancer
A Pap smear is a must, as it’s the best way to detect early cervical cancer. But you should also get tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted disease – a whopping 80% of sexually active people are infected with it at some point in their lives. Often it’s asymptomatic, but the high-risk strains have been linked to most cervical cancers. If HPV is found, then you must go for regular smear tests as your risk of cervical cancer is raised.
Your vagina actually cleans itself
There’s no need for you to go to extreme lengths like using a douche. Your body’s secretion (dischage) is how your vagina keeps itself clean. While gently cleansing the vulva is perfectly safe, the use of harsh soaps or shower gels can upset your vagina’s natural pH. A warm water rinse is all it takes to keep things fresh.