When you made your New Year’s resolutions this year, was your gynaecological health front-of-mind? Probably not. But if, like many of us, you let non-urgent health check-ups slide in 2020 (as the pandemic kept us all at home), it may be time to check in with your body and put a spotlight on any women’s health issues that may be troubling you. Here are five things every woman should keep her eye on ‘down there’:
Cervical screening (previously known as the ‘Pap test’)
Routine cervical screening is essential for ensuring the health of your cervix. During a cervical screening test, a scraping of cells is taken from your cervix and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Specifically, this test checks for the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV). Persistent HPV infection can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, which can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Therefore, it’s important to keep up to date with your scheduled cervical screening.
Now I know what you’re thinking – it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. The truth is yes, sometimes having a cervical screening test can be a bit bothersome and unpleasant. However, the good news is that the test takes just a few minutes and due to recent advances in screening, you only need to get tested every five years if your results are normal. If you missed your test in 2020, this is one health appointment you should reschedule as soon as possible.
Don’t ignore new or odd symptoms
Every woman’s body is different. When it comes to gynaecological health, knowing what’s normal and what’s not, can sometimes be tricky. If you notice any new or unusual symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor – these symptoms could be an important sign that something is wrong, in which case early detection and treatment is always better.
Symptoms to watch out for include changes in the texture, appearance and smell of any vaginal discharge, abnormal bleeding, pain upon urination and/or pain in your lower abdomen. Talking about these kinds of symptoms can feel awkward and embarrassing, but recognising changes in your body and alerting your doctor is an essential step to ensuring your gynaecological health. Be reassured that gynaecologists are trained to have these conversations; the more open you are about your symptoms and how they are affecting your day-to-day life, the easier it will be for your doctor to diagnose and treat the problem.
Consider if egg freezing is right for you
As a woman ages, the quality and number of her eggs naturally declines, which can dramatically lower her chances of falling pregnant from around the age of 36 on. Egg freezing provides a way of safeguarding a woman’s fertility by keeping some young, healthy eggs ‘on ice’. These eggs are effectively put on standby, providing women with a back-up plan if they run into problems falling pregnant later in life. If a woman knows she is unlikely to start trying for a family until she is in her mid-30s or older, egg freezing can be greatly reassuring.
So, what does egg freezing involve?
Egg freezing can be split into three steps:
- Initially the ovaries are stimulated with self-injected hormones to produce multiple eggs. During this time, the follicles which contain the eggs are monitored via ultrasound, so we know the best time for egg collection
- Egg collection occurs under light anaesthesia (typically this procedure takes 10–15 minutes)
- From the eggs collected, mature eggs are identified, then frozen and stored (up to 10 years) for later use.
There are a few factors you should consider before deciding whether egg freezing is right for you. Age plays a central role in female fertility, as both the quantity and quality of a woman’s eggs affects her chances of falling pregnant. Younger women tend to have multiple, healthy eggs so women who freeze their eggs at a younger age, i.e. early 30s and younger, will have a higher chance of achieving a live birth from an egg that has been frozen than women who freeze their eggs later in life (>35). When an older women wants to freeze her eggs, she may need to undergo egg collection more than once to ensure enough eggs are collected. Ideally, a larger number of eggs will be collected. This increases the chances of having a good number of quality eggs in the mix suitable for IVF, should she need to go down this path in the future.
Another consideration to bear in mind includes the cost of the procedure and medication (hormones used to stimulate egg production), as well as the ongoing cost of storing your eggs once frozen (usually charged per 6 months’ storage). In Australia, elective egg freezing (freezing your eggs by choice and not due to a medical reason) is not covered by Medicare.
Don’t keep putting up with troublesome periods
If ‘problem periods’ are interfering with everyday life, it’s important to make an appointment with your gynaecologist. There are a number of common issues that can lead to abnormal levels of pain and/or bleeding during your menstrual cycle. The good news is that most of these issues can be well-managed and treated by gynaecologists – you don’t have to ‘put up’ with any unpleasant symptoms you are experiencing.
Painful periods (also known as dysmenorrhea) typically present as cramping in the lower abdomen that is much more painful than one would normally expect to experience with their period. While everyone’s pain threshold is different, any pain that is bad enough to stop you from participating in daily life and keeping up with your commitments (e.g. missing exams, repeated days off work, declining social engagements) should be investigated. This is even more true if your symptoms are causing difficulties in your relationships (including painful intercourse). Sometimes painful periods can be eased with quite simple measures, such as the right combination of pain medication and use of the oral contraceptive pill. So it’s worth finding out what your treatment options are sooner, rather than later.
Eating vagina-healthy foods
Diet and gynaecological health go hand in hand. Just like the gut, the vagina also relies on good bacteria to keep things in check. Good (probiotic) bacteria help balance the vagina’s pH, which is crucial for preventing the growth of infection-causing microorganisms. Therefore, eating foods that are rich in good bacteria like yoghurt, some cheeses, sauerkraut and pickles, can have a big impact on your vaginal health.
Consuming cranberries or concentrated cranberry juice can also help defend against unpleasant urinary tract infections. Cranberries are rich in compounds that make sticking to the bladder wall difficult for bad bacteria.1 This can help the urinary tract and bladder ward off any potential infections, so adding cranberry to your diet is a great step if you tend to suffer from repeated infections.
Make women’s health your priority
No matter the year, women should always prioritise their gynaecological health. If you have never seen a specialist gynaecologist before, consider starting this relationship in 2021. A good gynaecologist can help a woman through every stage of life – from problem periods and HPV screening through to child-bearing and menopause. To make an appointment with me, you can call my rooms on (03) 9418 8299 or book online.
- Howell AB Mol Nutr Food Res 2007;51:732–737
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.