When it comes to health care, men and women have different issues to consider – for obvious reasons.
Dr. Samuel Hall of Novant Health Winston-Salem Gynecology shed light on three key differences between the sexes that women should keep in mind to stay healthy.
Women need different specialists
Women need special attention when it comes to the female reproductive system. In fact, many women begin seeing a gynecologist in their teenage years, whereas men may not need a specialist until they’re much older, Hall said.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that adolescent girls begin seeing a gynecologist between ages 13 and 15, even if not sexually active. This gives them an opportunity to establish a relationship with their doctor sooner rather than later if they have not discussed this information with their pediatrician or family care provider.
And while many women visit their OB-GYN during adolescence and the premenopausal years, there appears to be a disconnect with those in their late 40s, 50s and 60s who decide to stop going to their gynecologist because they’ve passed the childbearing age.
“The breakdown is some women only see a gynecologist for their yearly physical,” Hall said. “If a woman stops thinking she needs a regular Pap smear or mammogram, she may think she can stop seeing a medical provider altogether. We want to make sure women are still in touch at every stage of their lives because they can still face medical issues even if they don’t think they’re directly related to gynecology.”
Women need different screenings
Every woman is different. Whether you are a young woman, a new mom, in midlife or beyond, each stage of your life is different and calls for different preventive measures and screenings.
“We recommend starting Pap smears at age 21,” Hall said. “But we recommend adolescent girls come in earlier to have conversations about contraception, STD screenings and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.”
HPV vaccines are recommended for girls as young as age 11. Given in a series of three shots over six months, the vaccine can protect against most strands of HPV. There are currently three HPV vaccines – Cervarix, Gardasil and Gardasil 9.
Keeping up with what to be screened for and when can be confusing. The American Cancer Society recommends the following:
- Cervical cancer screening beginning at age 21.
- Pap test every three years for women ages 21 to 29.
- Pap test and HPV test every five years for women between ages 30 and 65.
In addition, Hall said regular clinical breast examinations and pelvic examinations should still occur yearly. “When some women think gynecology, they only think Pap smears. It’s more detailed than that,” he said.
Women react differently to illnesses
While women and men are at risk for similar diseases and health complications, they may have varying physical reactions. “Women face chronic illnesses just like men do, but the symptoms can present differently,” Hall said.
For example, Hall said women are more likely to have atypical symptoms when it comes to heart attacks. The typical chest pain signaling a heart attack in men can be manifested as back pain or shoulder soreness in women. Research has also shown women may experience fatigue, neck pain, nausea, arm pain, dizziness and jaw pain, among other symptoms.
“I once had a patient who said her breasts were sore when walking up a flight of stairs,” Hall said. “She came in because she thought there was something wrong with her breasts. It turns out she was having chest pains and needed to have her heart checked out.”
As a result, Hall said he aims to speak with his patients yearly during their breast examinations about unusual symptoms they may think are related to their breast health but could signal other issues.
Diabetes may also manifest differently in women. Hall said women with early stage diabetes can show symptoms of chronic yeast infections or bladder issues. Diabetes changes a person’s body chemistry, including increased blood sugar levels, which can alter the pH balance in the vagina and cause a yeast infection. “Make sure you consult with a physician for accurate diagnoses and treatment,” he said.
Hall stressed the importance of finding an OB-GYN with whom you feel comfortable. Looking for an OB-GYN in your area? Find one online:
Novant Health (North Carolina)
Novant Health UVA Health System (Virginia)