We talk a lot about the differences between men and women in our culture, but, at the end of the day, it’s fair to say that we have more in common with each other than not. We’re all human, after all, and we all face many of the same health risks and challenges. But women also face a distinct set of health issues that men either don’t face at all or, as in the case of a disease like breast cancer, they face in much smaller numbers than women. (Of course, men experience health issues that are unique to them, too. I’m not mad that I don’t have to worry about prostate cancer.) It’s important that women be aware of the health issues that affect them, so that they can take care of themselves and detect early signs of problems.
In this list, I’ve included some of the health conditions that are either exclusive or nearly exclusive to women. But it’s important to note that there is also a host of health conditions that affect both sexes to a significant degree, but that affect women disproportionately or differently than they do men. For example, although heart disease is often seen as a “man’s disease,” it is in fact the leading cause of death of women in the U.S. That’s true for men, too, but women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men are. Women are also more likely than men to experience osteoarthritis, mental health issues (especially depression), stroke, urinary tract problems, and autoimmune disorders. (Er… yay for us?)
Before we get this (sort of depressing) party started, I’d like to take a moment to recognize that I’m making general statements here about men and women’s health, but gender identity and biological bodies don’t always align. So these health problems — from ovarian cancer to PMDD — don’t exclusively affect people who identify as women. They affect people who have biologically female reproductive systems and hormonal dynamics, regardless of where they identify along the gender spectrum.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we vagina-havers get to look forward (potentially) to the following conditions:
- Bacterial vaginosis: A vaginal infection caused by “change in the balance of bacteria that normally live in the vagina.”
- Vaginitis: An “inflammation or infection of the vagina that can cause itching, burning, pain, discharge, or bad odor.” NIH clarifies that this is different from vulvodynia , which is “chronic pain or discomfort of the vulva [the external part of the genitals]” only.
Periods, yo. (And the stuff that goes with them).
There is absolutely nothing unhealthy about periods. Menstruation is a natural part of the female reproductive system, and having a regular period can be a good sign of health and fertility. (But if you have irregular periods, don’t worry. Those are very common, too.) But periods can come with some less-than-awesome health issues:
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): Most people who have periods are already familiar with at least some of the symptoms of PMS, which can include, among other things, acne outbreaks, cramps, headaches, fatigue, and mood swings. PMS sucks, but it’s not disabling. If you’re having symptoms that interfere with your ability to live your life every month, you may be dealing with a different condition, PMDD.
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): PMDD is a severe form of PMS that affects between two and ten percent of women who menstruate. The symptoms of PMDD are similar to those of PMS (cramping, mood swings, fatigue, etc), but they are strong enough to have a major detrimental effect on your everyday life.
- Menorrhagia (Heavy menstrual bleeding): Most people who have periods have heavier flow days than others, but some experience menstrual bleeding that is so heavy and so long lasting that it interferes with their daily lives. The CDC defines menorrhagia as bleeding that lasts more than seven days or that is particularly heavy (meaning that you have to change your pad/tampon more than every two hours, or that you have blood clots larger than quarters). This heavy bleeding can cause anemia, a blood condition that leads to weakness and fatigue. Menorrhagia can be caused by a lot of different things, like uterine-related issues (like uterine fibroids — more on those below — and uterine or cervical cancer); certain types of birth control; hormonal problems; and disorders of the kidney, liver, or thyroid. Because everyone’s definition of “heavy” can vary, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you think you might have abnormally heavy bleeding.
Issues with fertility and reproductive organs.
Both men and women can have issues with fertility, but those issues express themselves in different ways. Many women have to deal with conditions affecting their reproductive organs that, in the short run, can be painful and difficult, but that may also make it more difficult to conceive in the long term. According to the NIH, some of the issues to look out for include:
- Endometriosis: A condition in which the cells that line the uterus grow outside on the uterus (on the ovaries, bowels, and elsewhere). People with endometriosis may experience severe pain during their periods, as well as fertility problems.
- Uterine fibroids: Uterine fibroids are noncancerous growths of the uterus. They are fairly common, and many women have them without ever becoming aware of them. Those who do have symptoms may experience prolonged and heavy menstrual bleeding as well pelvic pain. Most women with uterine fibroids don’t experience infertility, but, depending on their location and size, fibroids can cause infertility in some cases.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): The Mayo Clinic explains, “Women with PCOS may have enlarged ovaries that contain small collections of fluid — called follicles.” What causes PCOS isn't known, but the condition can cause “[i]nfrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, excess hair growth, acne, and obesity.”
Pregnancy brings along with it sweet, adorable babies and a whole range of potential health issues to obsess over. Pregnancy is a huge field of medicine in itself, so I won’t go into every potential complication or health risk that people face when they’re growing an infant. Needless to say, even totally healthy, low risk pregnancies involve major hormonal changes that affect women both physically and emotionally. After giving birth, new moms can also face challenges with breastfeeding and postpartum depression. (Men can have postpartum depression, too.)
Not all cancers are gender-dependent, of course — Both women and men are subject to diseases like skin cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer. However, women do face certain types of cancer that are specific to the female body, including cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus). Both men and women can develop breast cancer, but men account for less than one percent of all breast cancer cases.
Cancer is scary, but there are things you can do to help prevent it and to catch early warning signs. Girls and young women can protect themselves from certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus), which cause most strains of cervical cancer, by getting vaccinated against HPV. Women over the age of 21 should also get regular pap tests to help detect early signs of cervical cancer. To detect breast cancer early, the American Cancer Society recommends that women of age 45 and older should get a mammogram every year. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you doctor may advise you to start getting mammograms earlier. As a younger woman, you should also perform routine breast self-exams to check for any abnormalities; by becoming an expert on what’s normal for your breasts, you’ll be the one best able to detect any unusual changes.
Like menstruation, menopause is a normal aspect of women’s health, occurring among women in their mid-40s to mid-50s. Menopause occurs when women stop menstruating, signaling the end of their fertile years. The transition can be accompanied by symptoms like hot flashes, insomnia, mood changes, and night sweats. After menopause, women have increased risk of certain health complications: For example, the decrease in estrogen that comes with menopause can increase women’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Women also tend to lose bone density post-menopause, which can lead to osteoporosis. Urinary incontinence can become a problem, as well, due to a decrease in elasticity in the vagina and urethra.