From “leaking” urine after childbirth to the “joys” of menopause, women are subject to many “embarrassing” health complaints.
Hot flushes may leave you red faced (literally), but experts insist these ailments happen to the best of us and are nothing to be ashamed of.
Failing to confide in a doctor could leave you suffering in silence for years, if not decades.
"Many conditions that cause embarrassment are often ignored but this just results in symptoms continuing and, in some cases, getting worse,” Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.
“Don’t ignore any symptom that is bothersome or which worries you, even if you are embarrassed.
“Seek medical advice so you can start the correct treatment, regain your self-confidence and get back to normal life.”
‘Leaking’ after childbirth
Many women unintentionally pass urine after giving birth, often when they laugh or cough.
According to Dr Daniel Atkinson – clinical lead at Treated.com – as many as a third of new mothers suffer.
“Carrying a child and giving birth is hard on your body and postpartum urinary incontinence is nothing to be ashamed of”, he told Yahoo UK.
“Speak to other mothers about the issue if it’s getting you down”.
Natural births cause the vaginal canal to stretch.
“It stretches and causes damage to the collagen, elastin and pelvic floor; a widening happens and affects the vaginal walls, causing them to weaken,” Dr Tania Adib, consultant gynaecologist at The Medical Chambers Kensington told Yahoo UK.
“The damage is done post childbirth, but some women don’t get symptoms for a long time after.”
Pelvic floor exercises, both during pregnancy and after labour, can be key to keeping those muscles strong.
While it may be distressing, Dr Atkinson claims urinary incontinence tends to pass within six months of labour.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but drinking water could help, with dehydration irritating the bladder.
Dr Atkinson also recommends avoiding coffee and spicy foods, as well as wearing sanitary-style pads to mop up any leaks.
Hot flushes during the menopause
As if mood swings and insomnia were not enough to contend with, hot flushes are often a tell-tale sign a woman is going through “the change”.
Most women start the menopause at 51, leaving them unable to become pregnant naturally.
Falling oestrogen levels can make them hot and bothered, leading to sweat patches and a flushed face.
“This feeling can last for several minutes and can be unpleasant for women,” said Dr Atkinson.
“It is, however, a very common part of the menopause and is nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Some manage with light clothing, cool showers and fans, however, others turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) gels, patches or implants.
Although “extremely effective at relieving menopausal symptoms”, HRT has been linked to blood clots and breast cancer in some women.
For most, however, the “benefits of HRT are generally believed to outweigh the risks”.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a generic term for conditions that affect the digestive system.
“IBS has proven notoriously difficult to treat and is recognised as not just a problem of bowel function, but results from faulty communication between the gut and brain,” said Dr Brewer.
“Normally, the brain filters out all the sensations involved with digestion, such as the bowel contractions that propel solid wastes downwards, so these do not reach the level of conscious thought.
“When you have IBS, however, these sensations are not filtered out as well as normal and the signals produced by over-sensitive stretch receptors in the gut lining get through to the brain where they are perceived as pain.”
The poorly-understood disorder can trigger everything from bloating and diarrhoea to constipation and smelly wind.
“Twice as many women are affected by IBS than men, so you are not alone,” said Dr Atkinson.
A 2015 American Physiological Society study found the nerves in the brains of female rats “received more signals that suppress the intestinal movement of food”, offering “one explanation of why digestion problems are more common in women”.
Some have also suggested women may be more likely to seek help, leading to a diagnosis, while bashful men “stick it out”.
Read more: How to enjoy sex during the menopause
“Unfortunately, IBS is likely to affect you throughout your life and there is not a cure for it,” said Dr Atkinson.
When it comes to treating the syndrome, doctors often recommend patients get to know their “triggers”, eat slowly and find ways to relax.
Common triggers include wheat, gluten, dairy, yeast, excess sugar and artificial sweeteners.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recognises the benefits of probiotics, “good bacteria”, if taken for at least four weeks.
It also advocates a low-FODMAP – fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols – diet.
“Basically, these are a group of fermentable (gas-producing) sugars and fibres,” said Dr Brewer.
“Eating foods high in FODMAPs increases the volume of liquid and gas in the small intestine which can trigger IBS symptoms.”
A low-FODMAP diet is made up of minimal fructose – the sugar in fruit, lactose – the sugar in dairy, and sweeteners.