Have you ever struggled with a health problem you felt embarrassed to mention? There are some such problems that affect everybody at one time or another, but for women, the situation is particularly acute. Certain areas of the body are not supposed to be talked about in polite company, to the point where women often feel ashamed to talk to their doctors about their symptoms. It’s also difficult to get politicians to talk about public health measures related to the subjects because they’re often embarrassed, even when women’s lives are on the line. Historically, women were frequently socially ostracized and even locked up in psychiatric institutions for speaking up – and countless more have suffered or even died because they didn’t get the help they needed. This article looks at a few of the health issues involved.
The Old Testament says that women who are menstruating are unclean. You might not expect an idea like this to remain prevalent in the modern age, but it has contributed to a strong social taboo that still makes monthly periods difficult to talk about. That means some women often struggle with getting access to sanitary products – which are not available through food stamps – or even, like Georgia woman Alisha Coleman, being sacked for menstruating while at work. Restrictions on access to contraception can make it difficult to access medication that makes periods more regular and reduces the amount of blood loss, and many women still struggle to get adequate treatment for chronic menstrual pain.
Health campaigns around sexually transmitted diseases often focus on men, and women who know the risks and want to use condoms to make having sex safer may struggle to make that a reality if the man in their life don’t want to cooperate. Although there are Quest locations in most major cities – and when it comes to STD testing Houston is well provided for – many women hesitate to get help because they worry they’ll be seen as dirty. In fact, professionals at these centers are not judgmental and getting an early diagnosis can be the key to successful treatment. Diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea usually affect women more severely than men and can cause infertility, so seeking help is vital.
The taboo on talking about female health problems extends to issues around how women pee. About one in 15 women suffers from a painful urinary tract infection in any given year. Contrary to popular myth, this usually has nothing to do with sexual behavior and it’s easily treated with antibiotics. It’s also common for older women to experience urinary incontinence, especially after pregnancy. Absorbent pads can help with managing symptoms and exercises can sometimes relieve the problem.
When women talk about the menopause – a process that can last as long as a decade – they’re frequently regarded as being irrational and unreasonable. The symptoms can include pain, mood swings and insomnia, and often have a seriously disruptive effect on day to day life, but they’re able to be eased with hormone treatment, so it’s important to feel able to ask a doctor for help. Still, society’s priorities mean that last year there were only a fifth as many clinical trials focused on the menopause as on male erectile dysfunction.
Perhaps most shockingly, cultural embarrassment about female health issues leads to some women dying of cancer. To stay safe, it’s vital to get a cervical smear test at least every three years if you’re over 25, and to get a breast cancer screening annually if you’re over 45. You can also reduce the risk by learning to check your breasts at home. Early diagnosis can make all the difference to treatment outcomes.
Medicine for men
Aside from all these issues around the breasts, genitals, reproductive and urinary systems, there’s a more general problem: modern medicine actually knows very little about how women metabolize drugs. That is because it wouldn’t be ethical to test a new drug on a pregnant woman, so rather than taking a risk that a participant might be unknowingly pregnant, or testing for pregnancy before commencing, most drug companies run human trials entirely on men. Because of the different hormone levels and different patterns of fat distribution in typical male and female bodies, some drugs can affect them quite differently. That is why Ambien, for instance, is now being prescribed in lower doses for women, because they metabolize it more slowly – after years of women being ignored when they said it made them feel groggy in the mornings. If medicine still hasn’t got to grips with basic issues like this, how long will it take it to start dealing properly with female-specific concerns?
Clearly, the attitude of the medical establishment, the political establishment and society in general to women’s health has to change. It’s going to take ordinary women speaking up to make it happen.