We need to talk about female health

Image courtesy of @charmayartstuffs on Instagram

As women, we are already subject to a multitude of worries and concerns throughout our lives; equal pay, equal rights, and sexual harassment to name but a few. During university, our time is monopolised by trying to balance work life and social life. Our vaginas should not be a source of anxiety to add to this.

With the increase of false and damaging information being spread across social media, more women are being shamed into believing how their bodily functions are wrong. They are being led to try out advice given by non-health professionals that can actually disrupt the correct functioning of the vagina. This reproduction of false information is a primary source of anxiety for women.

Words like discharge, period, vulva, and thrush may not be the sexiest of topics, but it is important as young adults to understand that our bodily functions are nothing to be ashamed of and that the dialogue surrounding female health is constantly evolving. It is time for the taboos to be broken and to normalise the conversation surrounding all things women’s health.

Many questions as to what is going on down there can be answered and treated at the pharmacy. It is often that women feel too ashamed to visit their local pharmacy and instead opt to visit the doctor unnecessarily.

In order to break the stigma, an open discussion is necessary. In aid of this, I collaborated with Kent-based pharmacist, Miss S.H. to discuss the state of female health within community pharmacy.

What are the most common requests you receive from women in community pharmacy?

The most common thing I get asked about and asked to treat is thrush.

Where do you believe the responsibility lies in teaching young girls and women about their reproductive organs?

I believe a lot of this responsibility lies with schools. Within the week that vaccinations for HPV are administered, schools should have a plan to educate girls on basic women’s health, how to identify signs of health issues, and should provide information on where to go for help.

What do you think about the current state of conversation surrounding women’s health in the UK?

It could be better. Some women still don’t feel like they can ask for help, or don’t know where to go for it. Many are also embarrassed. There is definitely a stigma surrounding even asking for help.

What’s the biggest concern that has developed within your years of working in community pharmacy regarding female health?

The lack of knowledge on where to go for help. Women are not well directed unless they visit a health care professional – which they often avoid because of the stigma attached to a lot of the presenting issues. Some women worry about where their information is going and downplay their symptoms. This then hinders how much information is given to the professional and so, this then affects the level of help they can get if needed.

What are your hopes for the state of female health in the next decade?

I would like to see women comfortable in discussing female health issues more openly. For example, Viagra used to have a stigma attached to it, since it became easier to buy over the counter, things like advertising have encouraged men and given them the confidence to discuss erectile dysfunction; there is an easy questionnaire that they can fill to help with an awkward conversation. Going forward it would be good to see women’s health being managed with this idea in mind, where we can address conversations that might seem awkward in a less embarrassing way. Also, advertising the kind of issues that can be dealt with and where they can be dealt with, so women don’t feel confused about where to go. Knowing that other women suffer from similar problems can increase confidence, allowing women to get the help and advice they need.

Deconstructing feminine hygiene myths

To make things a little easier for young women at university, we have created a basic guide to illuminate some of the most common conditions women face in their lifetime and debunk some of those ridiculous myths.

Feminine hygiene products and rituals

Image courtesy of hudabeauty.com

Myth: Discharge is an indication of uncleanliness.

Truth: The vagina is self-cleaning.

A lot of people have the assumption that discharge is a disgusting thing that indicates a dirty person. In reality, it is quite the opposite. Discharge is the vagina’s natural way of cleaning itself. Things, like using feminine washes inside the vagina and douching, can be the opposite of helpful in cleaning the vagina as they can often upset the natural pH balance and cause further issues.


Image courtesy of lloydspharmacy.com

Myth: It’s a sexually transmitted disease.

Truth: Thrush is not an STD and can occur in women of all ages, without sexual contact.

Thrush is a fungal infection that occurs when there is an overgrowth of natural yeast present in the vagina. It does not occur because you are dirty. It can occur due to the taking of antibiotics, pregnancy, wearing tight clothes such as nylon and skinny jeans, the use of irritating female hygiene products, and if you have health conditions that affect your immune system. The symptoms of thrush usually include itching, pain when having sex, and a thick white discharge. Thrush can also occur in men. Usually it is easily treated with an anti-fungal medicine and one trip to the pharmacy should sort you out.

Bacterial Vaginosis

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Myth: Washing your vulva thoroughly will cure your BV.

Truth: Over washing your vagina can be a cause of BV.

The vaginal microbiome is the bacterial population that lives in harmony in your vagina. These bacteria have been suggested to help protect us from things like STI’s, cervical cancer, HIV, and pregnancy complications. BV occurs when the concentration of a specific bacterium is out of sync and can cause a greyish or watery discharge that has a strong fishy odour. It doesn’t usually cause itching like thrush would and 50% of women do not experience any symptoms. It can be treated with antibiotics and there are suggestions that taking probiotics can help in prevention, so long as they contain the correct bacteria. But these studies are showing that there are still high re-occurrence rates.

Urinary Tract Infection

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Myth: Cranberry juice will cure it.

Truth: Cranberry juice is not an effective cure. The sugar in the juice can cause further irritation; it is the drinking of fluids that helps. When you are dehydrated your urine becomes more concentrated which can act as a breeding ground for bacteria, causing further irritation.

UTIs can occur in both women and men but are more frequent in women. Symptoms include a burning sensation and pain when you pee, smelly and dark urine, pain in your bladder and stomach area, and needing to go to the toilet more often. Most UTIs will pass in a few days but some may be severe and require antibiotics. A UTI is not an STD and cannot be passed on to your partner; having sex whilst having a UTI can be painful. Cystitis relief sachets can be helpful in reducing symptoms but will not treat the UTI itself.


Image courtesy of uk.style.yahoo.com

Myth: Using a tampon will take my virginity.

Truth: Virginity is a social construct. The association between breaking the hymen and losing your virginity is outdated and false. The hymen has nothing to do with how sexually active a person is and can be ‘broken’ due to different activities like horse riding, gymnastics, masturbation, and yes tampons.

The majority of women will experience periods in their lifetime, and they can often lead to anxiety and discomfort, especially in younger years as your body is still trying to adjust. One of the most common issues is trying to manage pain. Products like Feminax and Nurofen are marketed to women as being fast-acting pain relief. The active ingredient in these products is ibuprofen lysine and whilst it is true that this formulation provides pain relief faster than normal Ibuprofen, the strength of pain relief is usually the same as buying a drug store own brand – which is usually a fraction of the cost.

Emergency hormone contraception (morning-after pill)

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Myth: The morning after pill has to be taken the morning after.

Truth: The morning after pill can be taken up to 5 days (120 hours) after.

EHC is available at most pharmacies, depending on stock availability, to over 16-year-olds. There is a charge when bought at a pharmacy, but the process of acquiring the medicine is usually fairly simple. Pharmacists are there to help in these situations and will do their best to make you feel as comfortable as possible. Most will speak to you in a consultation room and answer any questions you have. If you are between the ages of 13-16, there is a common misconception that you must have a parent or guardian with you to acquire EHC. This is not true. Sexual health clinics or your GP surgery will go through this process with you.

Research lead by the FPA sexual health company, regarding the morning after pill, showed that in a survey of over 2000 women aged 16 to 24:

  • Only 37% had learned about emergency contraception at school or college.

  • Just less than one-third (30%) thought you need a prescription to get any kind of emergency contraception;

  • More than half (52%) thought asking for emergency contraception could be embarrassing and said there is still a stigma around it;

  • 46% did not know where they could get emergency contraception if they need it;

  • Almost one-quarter (24%) of 16-24-year-old women thought that the repeated use of emergency contraception can make you infertile.

  • 47% wrongly thought using emergency contraception was like abortion or weren’t sure.

In a world where there are new technological advancements every day, there is no plausible reason for the stigmas surrounding female health to still be prevalent in society. There are many companies and campaigns battling to change this. The ‘Clue’ app has a site filled with blogs and podcasts surrounding menstruation. And ellaOne, the leading EHC brand in the UK, have launched their #mymorningafter campaign to help destigmatise the use of EHC. No woman should suffer in silence in fear of embarrassment. Promoting a positive dialogue surrounding female health can provide knowledge and help to encourage women to have more autonomy over their bodies.

This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.

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