- Pelvic pain is widespread, and chronic pain affects 1 in 6 women
- Women are less likely to report chest pain and more likely to dismiss heart disease symptoms than men
- Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, despite being one of the most common gynaecological cancers
If you’ve ever found yourself dismissing or brushing off a health symptom, you’re not alone. Lots of women feel embarrassed, anxious or scared of being judged when it comes to speaking up about certain health issues.
Many female conditions can also be harder to identify – like endometriosis, a debilitating condition that affects 10 percent of women in the reproductive age group worldwide and takes an average of 7.5 years from the onset of symptoms to get a diagnosis.
This likely stems from the historic gender inequality within the world of healthcare. ‘For years, women’s health has been under-prioritised, meaning it may take longer to get a diagnosis, and until recently clinical trials were mainly conducted on men,’ says Dr Elisabeth Rosen, a medical doctor at Livi who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics.
‘It’s important to always put your health first as you only have one body and it’s supposed to last for a very long time. You should always speak to a doctor if you have an issue with anything that you don’t feel familiar with or are worried about.’
Here are some key women’s health symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore.
1. Breast changes
Regularly examining your breasts is an important way to detect breast cancer. It’s now the world’s most commonly diagnosed cancer.
‘It’s very important to check for changes in your breasts,’ says Dr Rosen. ‘Every woman should examine their breasts once a month at the same point in their menstrual cycle. It’s the most important life insurance a woman can give herself.’
A breast lump is the most recognisable (and common ) sign of breast cancer. Reassuringly, most breast lumps are not cancerous. Other breast changes to look out for include:
- The shape and size of your breasts
- A lump or swelling in your armpit
- Discharge from your nipples
- Thickening or dimpling of the skin
- An inverted nipple
- Red areas
- A rash
‘If you notice any changes, it’s worth getting them checked out by a doctor,’ advises Dr Rosen.
2. Discomfort or pain in your chest
If you experience discomfort or pain in your chest, this may be an indicator of something more serious. If it suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away, it may even be a sign of a heart attack.
‘The most common heart attack symptoms for women include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, lethargy, and pain radiating in the arms, back, jaw and neck. You could also suffer from a sensation of heaviness and pressure on your chest,’ says Dr Rosen. ‘Get emergency help straight away if you feel any strange sensations in your chest.’
Despite coronary heart disease (CHD) being the single biggest killer of women worldwide, women are less likely to report chest pain and more likely to dismiss symptoms. They’re also 50 percent more likely than men to be initially misdiagnosed when it comes to heart attacks.
Dr Rosen points out that chest pain could also indicate a lung embolism, which affects more women than men and requires urgent medical assistance, as it can be life-threatening.
3. Heavy or irregular bleeding
There are many factors that affect your menstrual cycle, including stress, weight loss and doing too much exercise. But if your periods are heavier than normal and you have irregular bleeding, it’s a good idea to discuss this with a doctor.
‘With abnormal bleeding, it’s important to get it checked as there could be an underlying condition that needs to be treated. Apart from being an inconvenience, heavy bleeding can cause anaemia and can also be a sign of fibroids, polyps, or womb or cervical cancer,’ says Dr Rosen.
‘Irregular bleeding is usually related to your menstrual cycle not working properly. Polycystic ovary syndrome, sexually transmitted infections (STI), ovarian cysts, benign growths in the womb or the lining of the cervix, or cervical or womb cancer can all cause irregular bleeding.’
She also recommends seeing a GP straight away if you have postmenopausal bleeding, as this is abnormal.
Feeling bloated occasionally isn’t necessarily something to worry about, but it’s important to know that increased abdominal size is one of the main signs of ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage and there’s generally a low awareness of the risk factors and symptoms, even though it’s one of the most common gynaecological cancers.
‘Ovarian cancer is a harder condition to identify,’ says Dr Rosen. Other associated symptoms of ovarian cancer to look out for include:
- Lower abdominal pain
- Irregular bleeding
- Increased urinary urgency
- Lower back pain
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling full when eating
- Weight loss
- Changes in your bowel habits
Other common causes of bloating include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food intolerance and constipation.
5. A persistent low mood
Depression appears to be more prevalent in women. The signs and symptoms to be aware of include a persistent low mood, irritability, low energy and difficulty concentrating and sleeping.
‘Depression is a condition that needs to be treated, so it’s important to discuss it with a doctor. Postnatal depression is an underdiagnosed condition and many women feel ashamed about getting help because the expectations placed on a new mother can be high,’ says Dr Rosen.
6. Abnormal discharge
Vaginal discharge is something that most women experience, and it’s needed to keep the vagina moist and protect against infections. According to Dr Rosen, healthy discharge doesn’t have a smell and is either clear or white. It’s also common to see changes in the amount and consistency throughout your menstrual cycle.
‘If you’re experiencing discharge that is unusual for you, speak to a GP,’ says Dr Rosen. ‘Abnormal discharge could be a sign of an infection.’ Common infections like thrush can often be treated with over-the-counter medicine. But abnormal discharge can also be a symptom of an STI, like gonorrhoea or chlamydia. If these STIs are left untreated, they can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to damage to the reproductive organs and sometimes infertility.
‘It’s important not to ignore symptoms because if infections are ruled out, abnormal discharge could be a sign of cervical cancer,’ says Dr Rosen.
7. Pelvic pain
Pelvic pain is widespread and chronic pain affects 1 in 6 women. ‘Common causes of pelvic pain include ovulation, endometriosis, a urinary tract infection (UTI) or PID. If you’re pregnant, pelvic pain can be caused by an ectopic miscarriage, miscarriage or premature labour. Other causes include ovarian cysts, IBS, constipation, appendicitis, inflammatory bowel diseases and ovarian cancer,’ says Dr Rosen. ‘If you have sudden, severe and long-term pelvic pain, seek an appointment with a GP.’
Learn more about what causes abdominal pain in women.
8. Pain during intercourse
Nearly 3 out of 4 women experience painful sex at some point in their lives. ‘Pain during intercourse isn’t normal, but many women suffer from it from an early age and often don’t seek help due to embarrassment,’ says Dr Rosen.
There are a variety of reasons why sex may be painful, including:
- Vaginal dryness
- Atrophic vaginitis (thinning and drying of the vaginal walls, which occurs most often after menopause)
- Ovarian cysts
- Vulvodynia (vulval pain)
‘Discuss it with a doctor and they’ll help determine the cause of your pain,’ advises Dr Rosen.
9. An intense headache
The leading symptom of a migraine is an intense headache on one side of the head. Women experience migraines 3 times as often as men. According to Dr Rosen, it’s partly due to oestrogen levels changing, so many women will experience it at the same time in their menstrual cycle each month or during perimenopause.
‘Additional symptoms of a migraine include nausea, visual disturbances and increased sensitivity to light. Sometimes you may also experience sweating, diarrhoea and poor concentration. In very severe cases, your nervous system can be affected – you may have problems speaking properly or you may become dizzy and lose consciousness. It’s important to seek help to rule out other conditions like a tumour,’ says Dr Rosen.
Discover what other types of headaches might mean.
10. Ongoing fatigue
While it’s very common for people to feel tired, if you’re experiencing ongoing fatigue, your body may be trying to tell you something is wrong. Dr Rosen suggests that there could be many different reasons for your fatigue, including:
- Iron deficiency
- Lack of vitamin D
- Heart disease
- Lack of quality sleep
‘Fatigue is one of the main symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), an autoimmune disease that mainly affects women. The condition has symptoms of tiredness, feeling cold, lack of concentration, depression, dry skin, brittle hair and nails, constipation, weight gain, a low heart rate and muscle pain and weakness. Speak to a GP if you’re experiencing these symptoms.’
Book a meeting to discuss any symptoms or issues that you’re worried about with a doctor.
This article has been medically approved by Dr Elisabeth Rosen, a medical doctor at Livi who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics.