9 Health Issues That Are Affecting Way More Women Than You Realize
Our society is undergoing a major women’s health crisis. Illnesses that disproportionately affect women are under-researched and poorly understood, doctors doubt women’s pain, and women are generally in poorer health than men. Due to stereotypes that women are prone to exaggerating physical health problems and misogynistic myths that women's bodies are designed to suffer, many of the issues they face are normalized. But while it may be common, feeling unwell is not normal, and women will not enjoy gender equality until they achieve the same level of physical health as men.
"Conditions that disproportionately affect women — particularly chronic, non-life-threatening but disabling conditions with subjective symptoms, like pain and fatigue — have been woefully neglected in the research realm," Maya Dusenbery, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, tells Bustle. "Consequently, they remain very poorly understood — and therefore poorly treated. A large proportion of women's disproportionate burden of illness is attributable to autoimmune disorders, chronic pain disorders, and other relatively under-researched female-predominate conditions. On top of that, there are also many women suffering from conditions that have been studied primarily in men — like heart disease or ADHD — and so often have 'atypical' presentations that go undiagnosed — and, again, therefore poorly treated."
For example, autoimmune diseases are more common among women, which could stem in part from differences between men's and women's immune systems, but only 30 percent of risk for autoimmune disorders is genetic. "So, to what extent is women's higher rate of autoimmune disease due to our higher rates of chronic stress? Or due our greater use of chemical-laden cosmetics and beauty products and household cleaning supplies?" Dusenbury says. "Historically, medicine has often treated women's illness as if it's innate and inevitable. But even if women have a predisposition to certain conditions (while men likewise have a predisposition to others) for sex-based reasons, there are also clearly environmental factors responsible for triggering these conditions — at least some of which are intimately connected to the gender-based oppression women experience."
Here are some illnesses primarily affecting women — and a lot of them — that you should know about, according to experts.
The most distinctive symptom of Fibromyalgia is pain in the joints throughout the body, but it can also involve fatigue, mood issues, and cognitive impairment. Its possible causes include genetics, infections, or injuries, according to the Mayo Clinic. Up to 90 percent of people with it are women.
“Even though Fibromyalgia is a disease that affects everyone, women are singled out and treated with skepticism," Dr. Bruce Gillis, CEO of EpicGenetics, which developed the first diagnostic blood test for Fibromyalgia, tells Bustle. "Women with Fibromyalgia in the 21st century are treated like the 18th-century Salem witches. I frequently hear from women of their relief at having objective proof of their disease after being dismissed by their doctors and family, who thought they were hypochondriacal.”
2. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome
The one to three million Americans with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) experience a sharp rise in heart rate when they stand up or otherwise change position. Eighty percent of people with it are women.
According to Dysautonomia International, "POTS patients are often misdiagnosed as having anxiety or panic disorder, but their symptoms are real and can severely limit a person's ability to function." POTS can stem from many illnesses including autoimmune diseases, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, heavy metal poisoning, and Lyme Disease.
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue. Symptoms vary from person to person, but they can include fevers, joint pain, rashes, hair loss, and fatigue. Women of childbearing age are the most likely to develop it.
Perhaps most famously, Selena Gomez has opened up about struggling with Lupus, which led her to get a kidney transplant from her friend Francia Raisa. Lupus can be treated with medications, chemotherapy, and lifestyle changes.
4. Interstitial Cystitis
Interstitial cystitis, a syndrome involving bladder pain and frequent urination, affects an estimated three to eight million women and one to four million men in the U.S. IC can have many causes, including pelvic floor dysfunction and other illnesses like autoimmune diseases and Lyme Disease. People with IC often describe it as feeling like a constant UTI. Yet until recently, many women with it were told they were hysterical.
The treatment will depend on the cause, but symptoms are often alleviated through a combination of dietary changes, medications, and/or procedures. "Although we have yet to find a cure, there are effective treatments and strategies that can help," Lee Lowery, executive director of the Interstitial Cystitis Association, tells Bustle. "Working with a healthcare provider experienced in treating IC and taking some of your treatment into your own hands can make a significant difference in the impact of IC."
5. Chronic Lyme Disease
You may have heard about chronic Lyme Disease from Yolanda and Bella Hadid or Avril Lavigne, who all have it. However, most people still think of Lyme as a brief illness that resolves after a course of antibiotics. Often, it is, but sometimes, it continues after treatment or remains undetected and untreated. If this happens, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause neurological and psychological symptoms. It can also lead to an extremely varied assortment of other symptoms and conditions, including some on this list, like POTS and IC.
Some research has shown that women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with chronic Lyme, yet there's other research showing that men are more likely to test positive for Lyme. However, since Lyme tests are notoriously inaccurate, this doesn't mean fewer women have Lyme. "What it does mean though is that men have a greater chance of having their symptoms confirmed by clinical tests, while women face a greater uphill battle in getting accurately diagnosed," Jennifer Crystal writes for the Global Lyme Alliance. "Women who appear in doctor’s offices wearing makeup or hairstyles that mask how awful they really feel are often told, 'But you don’t look sick!'"
Chronic Lyme is not as easy to treat as short-term, acute Lyme. Some people opt for long-term antibiotic therapy, others prefer alternative treatments like herbal regimens, and some use a combination.
6. Chronic Urinary Tract Infections
The usual dipstick cultures used to diagnose UTIs often miss them, leading them to go untreated and become chronic. One study found that one in five UTIs don't show up on standard tests. People with chronic UTIs, most of whom are women, often get misdiagnosed with incurable syndromes like IC and overactive bladder, leading to delayed treatment and potentially depression.
Those with UTI symptoms but normal urine cultures might look into alternative tests like Next-Generation Sequencing and Broth Culture to see what bacteria the initial urine culture may have missed. Treatment usually involves a long-term antibiotic course.
7. Hashimoto's Thyroiditis
You might have heard of Hashimoto's from Gigi Hadid, who attributed her weight fluctuations to the autoimmune disorder while calling out trolls who speculated about her body. In people with Hashimoto's, nearly 90 percent of whom are women, the immune system attacks the thyroid so that it doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone, which can lead to weight gain, fatigue, slow heart rate, and constantly feeling cold. Treatments include medications and supplements that help with hormone regulation.
8. Graves' Disease
Graves' is the opposite of Hashimoto's, where your thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. Symptoms include weight loss, heat sensitivity, rapid heartbeat, frequent bowel movements, and bulging eyes. It most commonly affects women under 40.
In this comic, writer Aubrey Hirsch describes her journey being misdiagnosed with anxiety and eating disorders before she was diagnosed with Graves'. Partly because it affects mostly women, Graves' symptoms are often written off as effects of psychological illnesses. Once people get a diagnosis, their condition can improve with medication or radioactive iodine.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the uterus lining grows outside it, leading to painful sex and painful periods — two symptoms, unfortunately, that our society normalizes in women. Perhaps this is partly why endometriosis take six to 10 years to diagnose on average.
One out of 10 women have endometriosis, and among them are Halsey, Lena Dunham, Tia Mowry, and more. Some people with endometriosis, like Dunham, see relief from hysterectomies, where the uterus is removed. But more common treatments are surgical removal of the endometrial tissue, hormonal birth control and other forms of hormone therapy, and pain medication.
A crucial step toward fighting these illnesses is to take women's health seriously — to listen to them when they report physical symptoms rather than tell them it's in their heads. We should, in fact, be showing women this level of respect and trust in every area of their lives.