Wonder why our grandmothers and moms are so fit, when they hardly had access to gyms and ‘healthy’ options to eat like we have now? While rapid urbanization and redefinition of gender roles are giving women more freedom and power, they are also taking their toll on women’s health. Here are top 15 women’s health issues that everyone should know about:
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
There are so many ‘PMSing’ jokes cracked by men who do not know what women actually go through. Bloating, abdominal cramps, breast swelling or tenderness, constipation, joint or muscle pain, acne along with emotional symptoms like mood swings are only some of the symptoms occurring 1 to 2 weeks before the periods. Some women could even suffer from a very severe form of PMS called the Premenstrual Dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
And if you thought problems with menstruation end here, you could not be more wrong. Every month the cells of the endometrium (inner lining of the womb) swell and get thicker, and are shed during menstruation. Endometriosis is a condition in which endometrial cells grow in other areas of the body most commonly in the area lining the abdominal cavity. It causes irregular bleeding and mild to severe cramping pain in the pelvis which may radiate to legs. It may even lead to infertility in some women. What’s worse, it may not even be your fault – it’s known to run in the family.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS or PCOD)
Women with agile, lean, svelte bodies and perfect-than-thou faces – you admire them, but at the same time envy them because you look nothing like them. Before you heave a sigh of relief because most women around you are struggling with obesity, acne and unwanted body hair just like you do, you should know that you might be suffering from what’s commonly known as PCOD or PCOS (Polycystic ovarian disease or syndrome). While women are leaving their traditional roles behind and donning the hats which men once did, the stress build-up is only causing the hormones to go out of whack. There is an increase in male sex hormones leading to increased body hair, decreased breast size, etc. The periods are irregular and the ovaries produce many small, immature eggs instead of healthy, mature eggs. If the right kind of eggs isn’t produced, the chances of conceiving reduce.
Every 3rd or 4th woman in the cities has ‘fibroids’ these days. Usually detected when women approach the doctor due to very heavy bleeding and pain during menstruation or when they have problems conceiving, fibroids are nothing but fibrous growths in the uterus. They grow fairly slowly, and are formed in response to the female hormone oestrogen. They occur naturally, and sometimes shrink after menopause due to the lack of the hormone in the body. Occasionally, they can grow to weigh several kilograms and cause pain during sexual intercourse and frequent urination, urgency to urinate and in very rare cases, infertility.
Vaginal infections (Vaginitis)
Do you have itching and redness around your vagina, abnormal vaginal discharge with an unpleasant smell, burning sensation during urination and/or pain during intercourse? It could be vaginitis, an infection or inflammation of the vagina. Some women may not have any symptoms. Extreme illness, creams, tight clothing, douching, sexual activity, faecal contamination, etc. disrupt the normal bacterial environment of the vagina and cause vaginitis. Vaginal yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter creams and vaginal suppositories, and bacterial vaginosis with antibiotics.
Urinary Tract Infection
Women have much shorter urethras – a good enough reason for easy upward movement of germs to their bladders. Urinary tract infection (UTI) affects the urinary tract and is more commonly seen in women than men. The risk of UTI increases during menopause. Cystitis (bladder infection) is the lower urinary tract infection and pyelonephritis (kidney infection) is the upper urinary tract infection. UTI may cause burning pain during urination, frequent urination and/or urgency to urinate. Fever and pain may also be seen in pyelonephritis. In uncomplicated cases, urinary tract infections are easily treated with a short course of antibiotics. UTI is most commonly caused by E. coli bacteria. The infection may also be viral or fungal.
With the demands of the family, career and other activities many women feel tired every day. But do you feel tired even before the day has begun? Is your skin pale? Do you have brittle nails? Chances are that you are anaemic and your blood lacks enough red blood cells. Low RBC count means reduced oxygen carrying haemoglobin (Hb) count which translates to low oxygen in blood making you feel exhausted, irritable and dizzy. Smooth, swollen painful red tongue, cracks or fissures at the corners of the mouth and sore and pale mouth are other signs. Blood loss from menstruation, increased blood supply demand during pregnancy, deficiencies of vitamins like vitamins B2, B6, B12, and folic acid due to poor eating habits can cause anaemia.
Breast and cervical cancer
One of the greatest health fears for a woman is breast cancer. According to medical experts, about 4 out of 5 breast cancer patients in India are at an advanced stage when they come to a hospital. The cancer registries’ data shows that urban women are at almost double the risk of breast cancer than rural women. No time for fitness, bad food, increased tobacco and alcohol consumption and lifestyle changes like late marriage are the perfect recipe for breast cancer. A lump or mass in the breast, discharge from or rash around the nipples, skin dimpling on the breast are some of the signs you should look out for.
Cervical cancer has beaten breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in India; it kills around 33,000 women every year in India. Cervical cancer is known to occur because of a virus called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) transmitted through sexual contact. Bad local hygiene, too many children, not enough spacing between children, low nutrition levels and early marriage all contribute to the risk factors. The high risk group includes girls who have had premature sex as teenagers, those who have had multiple pregnancies or multiple sex partners and don’t use contraceptives. The disease remains asymptomatic for a long time till it starts invading neighbouring tissues.
The moment someone mentions heart disease we picture middle-aged men. Contrary to common perception, heart disease can strike women too and the instances are increasing because of an increasingly urbanised lifestyle. More women die due to heart disease than breast cancer or cervical cancer. Earlier, cases of heart attacks were exclusive to post-menopausal women but now even younger women seem to suffer from them. Hectic schedules and increased instances of smoking and drinking are to be blamed. Other factors like increased use of oral contraceptives, irregular meal-times, tendency to eat junk food and lack of exercise are all taking a toll as well. Young women have higher death rates than men due to heart attacks because of the fact that they don’t undergo chest pains usually associated with disease and unlike men, who usually have blockage in the major arteries, women have blockage in smaller arteries which does not get detected in angiography. Some common symptoms in women are shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort; pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; breaking out in a cold sweat; nausea or light-headedness.
Women require certain essential nutrients like iron, folic acid and most importantly calcium during various stages in their life. The term osteoporosis is synonymous with women, low calcium, weak bones leading to fractures. Vitamin D deficiency caused by low exposure to sunlight and low dietary vitamin D are the main causes. Over-exercising (e.g. marathon running), especially in young women, increases osteoporosis risk because of excessive weight loss and early termination of menstruation. Osteoporosis is often asymptomatic until a bone fractures, then an X-ray and bone density measurement confirms the diagnosis. Prevention and treatment choices include lifestyle changes such as no smoking, minimizing alcohol intake, regular (weight-bearing) exercise, maintaining healthy weight, low-salt and calcium plus vitamin D-rich diet.
Women are affected with arthritis more than men. They usually develop osteoarthritis after the age of 40. Arthritis is not a single disease – there are over 100 different forms of arthritis. It is a collective term for different individual illnesses, with different features, treatments, complications, and prognoses. The similarity is that they have a tendency to affect the joints and many have the possibility to affect other internal parts of the body. It is mostly related to wear and tear of cartilage (osteoarthritis) or associated with an overactive immune system causing inflammation (rheumatoid arthritis). Some of the causes of arthritis are hereditary factors, infections (bacterial and viral), lack of joint fluid, autoimmunity, etc. Arthritis causes pain and limits the function of your joints. If your arthritis is due to inflammation of the joints then you may experience joint swelling, redness, warmth and stiffness.
Compared to people with a healthy weight, obese and overweight individuals have an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and tend to die younger. Obesity in women also causes menstrual abnormality, infertility and miscarriage. Obese pregnant women are at an increased risk of infections, pregnancy hypertension and gestational diabetes. Obese and overweight people are gaining weight rapidly in India. According to data from the Obesity Foundation India, more than 3 percent of Indians are clinically obese and a whopping 25 percent are overweight.
Metabolic syndrome, (syndrome X) is a set of abnormalities related to the body’s metabolism in which insulin-resistant diabetes (type 2 diabetes) is almost always present along with high blood pressure, high fat levels in the blood, cardiovascular disease, central obesity and abnormalities in blood clotting and inflammatory responses. It increases your risk of developing heart disease (heart attack, stroke, etc.) and diabetes. Being overweight or obese, not getting enough exercise and genetic factors increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Women also have specific circumstances like pregnancy, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), use of oral contraceptive and menopause, which increase their chances of developing metabolic syndrome. Gestational diabetes during pregnancy and PCOS increases the likelihood of developing insulin resistance, a risk factor tied to the disorder. Women who have had gestational diabetes or who have had a heavy baby are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Depression affects more women than men. It is a physically debilitating and an emotionally painful condition. A depressed person finds it difficult to enjoy anything or even function normally. Reasons could be many – trauma, grief, love and relationship troubles, genetic, alcohol consumption, obesity, etc. Women have an added risk factor – the hormones. Hormonal changes, particularly after pregnancy (postpartum) or around menopause, can trigger the condition. 80% of all mothers experience postpartum depression of one form or another. Though most of them usually get over normal ‘baby blues’ in a few days or at most a couple of weeks, some women take longer to recover and suffer more severe symptoms. They may exhibit suicidal tendencies, frequent bouts of crying, sleep disturbance, weight loss, a feeling of guilt and a general lack of interest in their surroundings. Some women suffer from a serious condition called postpartum psychosis which results in hallucination, delusion and obsessive thoughts particularly involving the baby. Recognizing depression and seeking help is the first and most critical towards recovery.
In general, women are more resilient than men and are more resistant to disease. Women produce a more vigorous immune response and increased antibody production, thanks to their sex hormones like oestrogen and progesterone. But this very advantage has a downside. Autoimmune diseases affect more women than men. Autoimmune diseases are a group of more than 80 disorders in which the immune system produces antibodies against the body’s tissues and attacks and destroys the body’s healthy tissue instead of protecting it from infection or disease. They involve almost every human organ system. Genetic, hormonal and environmental factors are suspected to be the risk factors. Although each disease is unique, many share same symptoms like fatigue, fever, dizziness, etc. Many symptoms resemble those of other health problems and make it difficult to get a diagnosis. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease may need a series of tests and procedures and can sometimes take years.
This article is not to scare all the women out there. It’s an effort to make you understand common women’s health risks so that you can take simple preventive measures and make changes in your lifestyle. This can go a long way in keeping these diseases at bay. It’s time you started caring for yourself too!