Women experience changes in their bodies throughout their entire lives. Some of these changes are due to aging. Others are the result of hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause, or menstrual cycles.
While it may feel awkward to mention unusual symptoms in “unmentionable” places to your doctor, these changes often provide important clues to your health. If you notice any unusual changes in your body, talk with your doctor to make sure that what you’re experiencing isn’t serious.
Every woman is different, so it’s important to know what is normal for you so you can recognize changes that may signal a possible health problem. Here are a few gynecological symptoms you should not ignore.
- Pelvic or abdominal pain. Only about 20 percent of pelvic pain women experience is actually due to gynecological problems, such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids. Musculoskeletal conditions and urinary or bowel problems can also cause pelvic pain.
- Abnormal vaginal discharge. All women have vaginal discharge. It’s nature’s way of keeping your genital area clean and healthy. Normal discharge is white or clear, with little or no odor. If your vaginal discharge changes in color, amount or consistency, or it takes on a noticeable odor, see your doctor.
- Breast changes. Worrisome breast symptoms include a change in size or shape of the breast, skin changes on the breast, a lump, or changes in the nipple (including discharge). The symptoms of breast cancer and less serious breast problems are similar. In fact, only 20 percent of breast lumps are due to cancer, so don’t let fear of a cancer diagnosis keep you from discussing any breast changes with your doctor.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding. See your doctor if you experience heavy bleeding that lasts longer than normal, occurs more frequently than every three weeks, after sex, or between periods. You should also pay attention to spotting or bleeding in between periods.
- Pain during sexual intercourse. Don’t be embarrassed. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, nearly three-quarters of women will experience pain during sex at some point in their lives, particularly after menopause.
- Difficult or painful urination, excessive chronic bloating, or painful periods.
Changes during menopause
Menopause is the natural end to a woman’s childbearing years. You are in menopause after completing 12 months without a period. For some women, this transition is uneventful. However, up to 40 percent of women experience one or more disruptive symptoms, including:
- Vaginal burning or itching
- Decreased libido during sex
- Painful intercourse
- Bleeding after sex
- More frequent vaginal or urinary tract infections
- Frequent urination
If you are a pre- or post-menopausal woman and are uncomfortable due to the changes in your body, talk to your doctor. There are many healthy ways to address menopausal symptoms. You should also see your doctor if you have any vaginal bleeding once your periods stop.
Gynecological cancer screening
Health experts agree that women should undergo regular screenings for cervical cancer. If you are at increased risk (for example, you have a family history of cancer), your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent screening. The goal of screening is to find cancer early, when treatment is more effective. Women should undergo Pap tests for cervical cancer screening between the ages of 21 and 65 or between 30 and 65 in combination with human papillomavirus (HPV) testing. Ask your doctor about the right screening test and frequency for you. Currently, there is no reliable screening for ovarian cancer. If you experience bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating, urinary changes (changes in urgency or frequency), or you find you feel full quickly after eating, see your doctor to rule out ovarian cancer.
Some of the symptoms women experience are related to a weakened pelvic floor. Baptist Health offers a program called Total Control®, an evidence-based program and a no-medication, nonsurgical way to improve pelvic health. It helps women strengthen the “pelvic pyramid” – which includes the pelvic floor muscles, lower back muscles and abdominal muscles.
Learn what is normal for YOU so you can recognize new or unusual symptoms and visit your doctor with any concerns. Make sure you keep track of any recommended screenings and annual visits.
Baptist Health offers a collection of wellness services, focused on women. Find out more at baptistjax.com/4her.