Myths about female sexual health
The best place to get information about your sexual health is from your doctor, however, in this age of information technology, or for whatever reason - be it anxiety and urgency, privacy, or convenience - you may one day find yourself searching the Internet for answers to intimate and important health questions.
While it is good to learn about your body and your treatment options, one should explore those Internet search results with caution. Health websites are oftentimes riddled with outdated advice, errors, and omissions, and many times, it results in common myths, which are believed by many teenagers and many adults as well.
In my practice, I am frequently asked questions about common misconceptions. I will clear up a few.
MYTH 1. Not all vaginal discharge is a sign of an infection
Some patients are obsessed with their discharge. They think any amount is a sign of infection, but it can really just be a sign that your vagina's self-cleaning action is working exactly the way it should. A normal vaginal discharge is clear, white or very light yellow and shouldn't have a bad odour to it.
Yes! it varies and the variety has to do with changes in your menstrual cycle. Before ovulation, it's clear, and after an egg is released, the discharge gets more cloudy and thicker. This change is often a cause for anxiety, but again, it is normal.
MYTH 2. The vagina does not need any special cleaning
Many women believe that it's a dark and dirty place down there, and that the vagina is dirty and must be thoroughly cleaned, when in reality not only is it clean, but it keeps itself that way. It is self cleaning. There is no need for any special douche, feminine wash, soap, spray, deodorant, or anything else. All that is required is a rag and some warm water. That's it!
All those other products are potentially harmful as they often kill the good bacteria that helps prevent infections. I have had numerous patients visit my office who have had yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, vaginal itching, or complaints of pain during sex because of these products.
Unless there is a fishy or offensive smell, at which point you should visit your gynaecologist, your vagina is clean.
MYTH 3. Do condoms protect you from all Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)?
The answer is No. Condoms help to protect you from contact with his penis and semen. However, plenty of other body parts touch during sexual intercourse. Any kind of pubic contact can put you at risk for HPV, herpes and other STIs. That being said, condoms still drastically reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, they just don't take it away all together.
MYTH 4. Not all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have symptoms
STIs often have no signs or symptoms (asymptomatic). Even with having no signs or symptoms, you can pass the infection to your sexual partners. Condoms are highly effective for reducing the transmission of STIs; however, no method is foolproof. Getting tested for an STI is the best way to know for sure whether or not you and your partner are clear, before you have sex. An STI can happen to anyone.
MYTH 5. Birth control pills do not cause weight gain
I have heard from several patients that they're concerned about gaining weight on oral contraceptives (birth control pills). Although numerous studies have been unable to prove a correlation between oral contraceptives and weight gain, this is still a common belief among women of all ages. No woman wants to gain weight; however, it is better to prevent an unwanted pregnancy than to be concerned about a myth that cannot be supported by research.
MYTH 6. Yes! You can get pregnant the first time you have sex
It surprised me to know that this is still a myth, and it is still believed that pregnancy cannot occur after the first time having sexual intercourse. Yes, it may seem like the odds are in your favour, but there is no reason to risk it. Whereas the intricacies of getting pregnant are quite complicated, and not in any way as simple as one may think, you are just as likely to get pregnant the first time you have sex as any other time. Ensure to always use an effective contraceptive.
MYTH 7. You can get pregnant during your period
While this is unlikely, it is very possible; especially if you are not using contraception. The length of the menstrual cycle, as well as menstruation, varies from person to person. Some women have long periods that overlap with the beginning of ovulation, which means they can be fertile even though they're menstruating.
There is also the ever so popular "safe period" after menstruation, where many believe that pregnancy cannot occur. This too is a myth! Whereas we can estimate the time of ovulation, it is just that, an estimate. Sometimes ovulation can occur earlier than is expected, making the "safe period" not so safe.
Then there is the infamous late-in-life pregnancy that can occur during the perimenopausal period; which is those few years before menopause, when the periods are erratic. It is not advisable to ditch birth control until you haven't had a period for a year or more, at which time you will be post menopausal. Do, however, consult your gynaecologist to discuss safe contraceptive methods at this age.
MYTH 8. Your periods do not start up again after they have stopped.
Once your periods have stopped at menopause (usually between ages 51 and 58), they do not come back. It is not normal to be menstruating again after it has stopped! Even if it is a small amount of bleeding it must be evaluated. 'Not normal' does not necessarily mean cancer, but this possibility has to be examined. Other causes of post menopausal bleeding (vaginal bleeding after menopause) includes hormone replacement therapy, extreme dryness (due to the low oestrogen levels), polyps, infections, and pre-cancers. Treatments are available for all these conditions.
MYTH 9. The HPV vaccine is not only for women
Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that affects both males and females. It also causes genital warts. There has been a lot of talk about the HPV vaccine, also called the cervical cancer vaccine, but not many know that males can also be vaccinated. Males can get genital warts, as well as transmit the virus to their female partner. Vaccinating males not only protects them from genital warts, but also helps prevent females from contracting HPV, the cause of cervical cancer.
MYTH 10. Pap smears are not painful
They should be uncomfortable, not painful. Many women complain about being afraid to visit their gynaecologist because they are terrified of the famously painful pap smear. In reality, it is this same fear and apprehension that results in an unpleasant experience, because it prevents you from relaxing your pelvic muscles. The pelvic muscles then clenches against the speculum that the doctor is trying to open, forcing it to a closed position, this results in the pain experienced.
Just relax, it is only a mild discomfort for less than a minute; small price to pay for something that may save your life.
I will leave you with an anecdote concerning a patient who thought that pap smears were painful, and had managed to avoid doing them ever.
I saw her for an abnormal discharge and noticed the cervix to look a bit abnormal. After convincing her it wasn't a painful procedure, and promising that if she did find it painful, the charge would be on me, I was able to perform the pap smear.
The results came back and she had a precancerous lesion. Luckily for this patient, I was able to treat her and offer her the HPV vaccine, and she is now looking forward to having a baby.
Not everybody is as lucky and only seek treatment when they are having symptoms, at which time it may be too late.
Always see your doctor and ask any question about your concerns. We are here to help you. The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked.
- Dr Rhonda Reeves is the Obstetrician/Gynaecologist at Southdale Medical & Gynae Centre, Shop 6, Southdale Plaza. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org