Understanding your reproductive health can be confusing at the best of times, let alone during your adolescent years. Whether you’re a mother, sister or close friend, here are five things you should tell any young woman beginning her journey to adulthood.
1. It’s important to look after your cervical health
Among Australian women between the ages of 25 and 55, cervical cancer is the fifth most common cancer.1 While this statistic is startling, the good news is that you can prevent cervical cancer by regularly having a cervical screening test and by getting vaccinated against the virus that causes it.
Routinely checking for any abnormalities in the cells from your cervix is one of the most important ways to safeguard your cervical health. Cervical screening (formerly known as the ‘Pap test’) does exactly that – it is a quick and simple way of detecting any cellular anomalies early. Specifically, cervical screening looks for the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection commonly known for causing genital warts. While HPV affects both men and women, an ongoing HPV infection in a woman can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix. If left untreated, these changes can slowly (over 10–15 years) develop into cervical cancer.
As per the recommendations of the National Cervical Screening Program, I advise women to begin testing from 25 years of age, as there is a very low rate of cervical cancer in women younger than this. Under this new program, you will be invited to screen for HPV every five years each time your test result is negative. If you return a positive test result, a follow-up screening test will be repeated in 12 months.
Attending your cervical screening appointment can be a little daunting, especially if it’s your first time. Even though the test can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable, it only takes a few minutes and could be lifesaving.
Another way you can protect yourself from cervical cancer is by vaccinating against HPV. In Australia, there are two HPV vaccines available: Gardasil® 9 and Cervarix®. Both of these vaccines cover two HPV types (16 and 18) responsible for nearly 90% of all cervical cancers. Gardasil 9 also includes five other cervical cancer-causing HPV types (31, 33, 45 and 58), as well as the two HPV types (6 and 11) associated with 90% of genital warts.2
In Australia, all high-school-aged boys and girls are eligible to receive Gardasil 9 for free under the National HPV Vaccination Program. If you have not had your HPV immunisation and are over the age of 20, your doctor will be able to administer the vaccine for you at a cost.
2. Don’t put up with troublesome periods
Most girls experience their first period between the ages of 11 and 14 – a milestone that can feel like a moment of relief or anxiety for many young women. If you are beginning to menstruate, familiarising yourself with the different ways you can manage your period will make handling this time of the month a little easier.
Sanitary pads and tampons are the two main types of period products you will see on the supermarket shelf. Both of these products help absorb your menstrual blood and depending on your personal preference, you may choose to use one or the other, or both – you will have to do a little investigating first to decide what works for you.
Pads sit on the inside of your underwear (sometimes with foldable wings to help keep them in place) and absorb blood so that it doesn’t leak anywhere else. To prevent any bacterial build-up and odour from occurring, you should change your pad at least once every 6–8 hours. On days where your flow is heavier, you may need to change your pad more often.
On the other hand, tampons look like little cloth tubes and are made to sit inside your vagina where they absorb blood. You can insert a tampon using your finger or an applicator (if it comes with one), making sure you wash your hands before doing so. When it is time to remove the tampon, gently pull the string attached. Sometimes this string might disappear – don’t stress! You will always be able to remove the tampon by gently using your fingers to find the string. Like pads, you need to regularly change your tampon (every 4–6 hours) to limit the growth of bacteria and reduce your risk of toxic shock syndrome (an extremely rare complication of a bacterial infection).
Because your period can be lighter/heavier depending on the day, both pads and tampons come in various sizes and absorbency. Deciding whether to use a pad or tampon is up to you and what you are most comfortable with. If you’re a keen swimmer or sportswoman, you may also like to invest in some period underwear or swimwear, so you can carry on doing what you love without the hassle or awkwardness of sanitary products. These newer types of ‘period wear’ are also better for the environment and more and more brands (including Bonds) are offering trendy but affordable options for tweens, teens and adult women.
Dealing with period pain and problem periods
It is not uncommon to experience some discomfort and cramping around your lower abdomen during your period. To help shed its lining, your uterus contracts (squeezes in on itself tightly) which can lead to period pain. Period pain can usually be treated with simple, over-the-counter pain medication like naproxen, mefenamic acid and ibuprofen. Applying a heat pack to your lower abdomen can also help alleviate some of the discomfort.
While bleeding and discomfort are a normal part of having your period, very high levels of period pain (dysmenorrhea), heavy bleeding or bleeding in-between your periods, are not normal and can signal something more serious, such as endometriosis. It’s important to recognise that you do not have to put up with troublesome periods and seeking assistance from your GP or a gynaecologist is very appropriate. This is particularly true if period symptoms are regularly interfering with your ability to get on with normal, day-to-day activities like attending school or work, playing sports or getting a good night’s sleep. For more serious period pain, other medication such as the combined oral contraceptive pill may be considered appropriate to help you manage this time of the month better. These other options are best discussed with your doctor who can then provide a script, if appropriate.
3. Discharge is normal and can change during your cycle
Each day, your vagina naturally produces fluid that keeps it clean and helps prevent infections from occurring. Vaginal discharge is a normal part of being a woman and the type and amount of discharge you have will vary throughout your monthly cycle. Typically, healthy discharge appears clear or milky in colour without any strong odour. In the lead up to ovulation (mid cycle), you may notice that your discharge is thicker in consistency and more voluminous, whereas during ovulation it is thinner and more elastic in appearance.
Knowing how your discharge changes throughout the month can actually help you achieve or avoid pregnancy. That’s because the larger volume of thick discharge that occurs during the middle of your cycle is a sign that you are about to ovulate. By timing or avoiding sexual intercourse at this time of the month, you can either boost or lower your chances of falling pregnant.
On the other hand, abnormal changes to the colour, smell and texture of your vaginal discharge (not related to your cycle) can indicate that an infection is present. For example, discharge that looks yellow or grey with an obvious odour could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. Yeast infections can also cause your vaginal discharge to change and resemble a cottage cheese-like appearance.
Getting to know your body and what is and isn’t normal for you is an important part of managing your reproductive health. If your vaginal discharge seems a bit different to how it is usually, it is important to seek the advice of your doctor to relieve any symptoms and rule out a possible infection. Left untreated, sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea and chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which may affect your fertility down the track.
4. There are ways you can help look after your future fertility and reproductive health while you’re young
Planning for pregnancy later on in life isn’t necessarily at the forefront of every young woman’s mind. However, taking care of your body while you are young can impact your fertility in the future. For example, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can reduce the quality of your eggs by damaging the DNA inside them. This can make it more difficult to fall pregnant when you start trying for a baby. Women are only born with a finite number of eggs and this number naturally declines with age, so it’s important to look after them!
Other modifiable lifestyle factors like exercising regularly, eating a balanced and nutritious diet, as well as maintaining a healthy weight, will not only benefit your reproductive health but will also improve your overall health and help you cope better with the physical stress that pregnancy places on a woman’s body.
These days, it’s also not uncommon for women who think they may not try for a family until later in life (35+) to freeze some of their eggs as a safeguard against age-related fertility decline (the natural reduction in the number and quality of a woman’s eggs as she ages). Egg freezing in your 20s and early 30s enables you to collect and preserve some of your younger, higher-quality eggs. Then, if you do have difficulty falling pregnant when you are ready to do so, you can make use of these frozen eggs with the help of IVF to improve your chances of having a baby.
5. There is always someone you can talk to
It’s not always easy chatting to a parent about your reproductive health, especially if it’s a topic you find embarrassing such as contraception. However, I can assure you that no matter how awkward you think a discussion about your body is, there is always someone you can talk to in confidence.
If you feel like you can’t speak to your mum, aunty, sister or close friend, there are several other resources available for you to access, such as:
- The healthdirect hotline (1800 022 222)
- A general practitioner you trust
- Family Planning Victoria (you can book a consultation online here or browse a variety of reproductive health topics)
In addition, you can also speak to a gynaecologist about any of your reproductive health queries. Many women see a gynaecologist for the first time when they become sexually active. However, you can see a gynaecologist at any age and finding one you feel comfortable with earlier rather than later can help put your mind at ease. If you want to book an appointment with a gynaecologist in Australia, you need to get a referral letter from your GP first.
From arranging a cervical screening test to discussing painful periods or abnormal discharge, I can advise you on how to manage your reproductive health needs. Please feel free to book an appointment online or call my rooms on (03) 9418 8299.
The information on this page is general in nature. All medical and surgical procedures have potential benefits and risks. Consult a healthcare professional for medical advice specific to you.