Women advised to know their anatomy

a92dc41b0f98.jpgThese are not sexually transmitted infections. They are infections that one acquires just because they are a woman. Take vaginal thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV), for example. These are the most common infections that women may acquire – some even more than once in their lifetime. Ironically, many are not even aware of these infections.

‘€œHonestly, I don’€™t know much about it. I just know the basics – that it does exist and that there are some symptoms you should be able to pick up as a female – but I don’€™t know a lot about it’€, said one woman.

‘€œWell, I don’€™t know that much about it. I know it is something funny that has to do with the vagina and you can be shy about it because most of the time it is associated with one’€™s behaviour’€, said another.

The two women are both over the age of 30 and have children. Their responses raise the question: How many more women are there who don’€™t know much about the sort of bacteria that can invade their vaginas?

Gynaecologists say there are several infections that a woman can get, but the most common and serious is bacterial vaginosis or BV, which normally affects women of reproductive ages between 19 and 40. Gynaecologist, Dr Sumaya Ebrahim, outlines some of the key symptoms.

‘€œMore commonly, it leads to the presence of a vaginal discharge. The discharge is sort of greyish; it’€™s a lot and doesn’€™t burn or itch, but has a distinctive odour. The odour is described as being fishy and gets particularly worse after intercourse’€.

Dr Ebrahim says having a discharge is nothing far from usual for women. However, it’€™s important to distinguish the characteristics of a normal discharge from an abnormal one.

‘€œDischarge can be normal in all women and a normal discharge is usually clear or white, or sometimes a little clear with no burn or odour and it’€™s comfortable and usually present all the time, whereas when there is an effective process going on, there is a change in the vaginal discharge’€, says Dr Ebrahim.

Many factors can cause bacterial vaginosis, including stress or when the immune system is at its low. The use of excessive alcohol or smoking can also be predisposing factors. Dr Ebrahim says what is worrying is that most women don’€™t consult a doctor if they pick up some kind of abnormality in their bodies because they are embarrassed.

‘€œThere is a whole group of women out there who are embarrassed – people who don’€™t have a regular GP, and are embarrassed by any vaginal secretion because it can be perceived as being unclean or, maybe, an STI. The most important thing to know is what’€™s normal, what’€™s not normal, and get information. Get empowered so you know when to panic, when to see your doctor and when to self medicate’€, she says.

 This embarrassment has driven many women underground over many generations. I spoke to a 54-year old woman who is also a mother of two. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said anything that had to do with the vagina was unspoken of during her childhood because of the labels that came with it.

‘€œYou would experience this itching, redness, swelling, strange discharge and you would keep quiet because it was associated with one’€™s sexual behaviour. It could be perhaps you are sleeping around, you are promiscuous, and everything that was abnormal about the vagina was associated with that. So, you would hide and try all other means not to go to the doctor because you were ashamed and scared’€, she says.

Thus, as a young girl, she says, one would shy away even from their own mother and opt to self medicate.

‘€œThere was no information about this, you wouldn’€™t even share it with your own mother ‘€“ you would try solving it in your way. You would try things like Dettol, warm water, wash as frequently as you can and change your panty’€.

Gynaecologists have warned that any vaginal infection, particularly Bacterial Vaginosis, has a 50 to 70% chance of recurrence. About 75% of women can develop BV in their lifetime. And, if not treated, it can have severe consequences. Dr Sumaya Ebrahim explains that the risks can be divided into pregnancy and non-pregnancy related risks.

‘€œMiscarriage, post-abortion infection in the uterus, it can also lead to premature rupture of membranes in the pregnancy. In terms of non-pregnancy related problems, it increases the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, it increases the risk of acquiring other sexually diseases, particularly, gonorrhoea, HIV, it can lead to abnormal pap-smearss. It can lead to psychological aspects, like poor body image, poor self-esteem. If you think ‘€˜oh goodness I smell and people can smell me’€™’€¦ There could be a psychological impact of that as well’€, says Dr Ebrahim.  

Dr Ebrahim says it’€™s important that women know how to reduce the chances of contracting bacterial vaginosis or any other vaginal infection.

‘€œThe vagina is a very delicate area. There are a lot of organisms that live there happily. If one starts interfering with that, you’€™re going to increase your susceptibility level, so the trick is not to put anything in the vagina that will affect that environment or the PH.   A lot of soaps are alkaline, sperm is alkaline and what you need to do is focus on an agent that is neutral. Don’€™t put it inside your vagina. I don’€™t recommend douching. Wear cotton underwear against the crotch. If you feel uncomfortable because it’€™s too tight, then give it a break for a couple of days. You can buy pro-biotics over the counter if you can feel that you are not feeling okay’€, she said.

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