Every woman is intimately familiar with menstruation. After all, we spend nearly our entire lifetimes with our period, sometimes cursing the fact that we have it every month, lamenting the discomfort it causes, as well as hoping every month that it arrives on time—unless we want to get pregnant, that is. But often, due to lack of knowledge and taboo around the subject, women tend to pay less attention to regular and good menstrual hygiene—or worse, do not have access to facilities that can help them maintain it.
However, menstrual hygiene is crucial for a woman’s overall health. Not paying enough attention to it can seem insignificant, but the fact remains that poor menstrual hygiene can cause not only short-term health issues, but also chronic ones that can take a toll on you. We discussed menstrual hygiene and its immense impact with Dr Asha Dalal, the director of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai. Here’s what she had to say.
What menstrual hygiene is all about“Menstrual hygiene management or menstrual hygiene is when a woman or adolescent girl uses a clean material to absorb and collect menstrual blood, which can be disposed off or changed in privacy, and as often as needed,” Dr Dalal says. “Access to facilities that make changing, disposing this material, and make keeping the vagina clean easier, are crucial for menstrual hygiene management.”
Dr Dalal explains that with many social norms and taboos being associated with menstruation, many women find it challenging to maintain menstrual hygiene. Lack of toilets and inadequate water supply makes this problem so acute that many young girls in India are forced to drop out of school once they start menstruating. Ensuring that these facilities, and awareness about menstrual hygiene, are provided to all women is vital. “You see, the ability to maintain proper menstrual and personal hygiene is linked to good health, well-being, gender equality, and women’s rights and empowerment.”
What you need to maintain menstrual hygieneSo, what are the basics you need to maintain menstrual hygiene? Dr Dalal recommends you use sanitary pads, tampons, reusable pads, or menstrual cups to collect your menstrual blood when you’re on your period. However, knowing how to dispose offof them, and manage each of these menstrual hygiene products is equally important. This is not only true for sanitary pads, which need to be changed frequently, and safely disposed off safely.
“Tampons need to be removed at regular intervals,” Dr Dalal insists. “Never keep it overnight and forget about it, as it can cause toxic shock syndrome.” Similarly, reusable pads may be environment friendly, but need to be washed properly, disinfected, and properly dried to prevent harmful bacteria, fungi, or parasites from growing on them. Along the same lines, menstrual cups need to be properly washed, disinfected and dried for the same reasons.
And when it comes to cleaning your vagina and genitals, you don’t need anything fancy. “Remember, only soap and water is good,” Dr Dalal says. “No douches. No matter how fancy, they are unnecessary and can cause harm.” Just like douches, it’s best if you avoid unhealthy practices like vaginal steaming or using yoni eggs. These might be endorsed by some celebrities, but you won’t find a single doctor who recommends them because they cause more harm than good.
Diseases caused by poor menstrual hygieneSo, what happens if you fail to or are unable to maintain good menstrual hygiene? “Poor menstrual hygiene makes for poor personal hygiene, and there are many health issues that can come up due to this,” Dr Dalal says. The following are the main health problems that can come up, even frequently, if you have poor menstrual hygiene.
Urinary tract infectionsAn infection that affects the urinary system, consisting of kidneys, ureters, bladder and the urethra, are known as urinary tract infections (UTI). Most UTIs involve the lower urinary tract, especially the bladder and urethra. While men also get UTIs, women are at greater risk of developing them throughout their lives, and poor menstrual hygiene is a key factor contributing to this trend. The infection itself can be painful, and is usually treated with antibiotics. However, if it is left untreated, or recurs frequently, then it can spread to the kidneys and even turn fatal.
Bacterial vaginosisYour vagina has a natural microbiome, or an ecosystem of good bacteria, which maintains its pH balance and keeps it healthy. Overgrowth of bacteria, especially due to poor personal or menstrual hygiene, can cause this balance to be overthrown. This causes a type of vaginal inflammation and infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV). From a burning sensation while peeing to foul smell or a grey or green discharge can be a sign of BV. BV is easy to treat, but if left untreated, it can cause complications like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Toxic shock syndromeIt may be rare, but toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is certainly life-threatening and likely to plague women who use tampons incorrectly. TSS usually occurs when toxins produced by bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and A Streptococcus bacteria. This type of infection causes a sudden high fever, low blood pressure, muscle aches, confusion, and seizures. TSS can progress quite rapidly and cause renal failure and death, which is why it’s very important that you prevent it at all costs.
DermatitisDermatitis is the general term used for skin irritation, which usually causes severe itching. This in turn can cause scratches or cuts which can invite infections. Usually, women who use sanitary pads incorrectly, or do not clean their genitals properly, can contract dermatitis. Dermatitis is easy to manage in its early stages, and can be treated with topical creams and maintaining good personal hygiene. However, if left untreated, or if it recurs frequently, it can cause chronic dermatitis and other skin infections.
Cervical cancerDoes this link sound extreme to you? It might, but the fact remains that poor menstrual hygiene, and chronic or recurring infections caused by it, can indeed increase your risks of cervical cancer. Studies show that apart from recurring reproductive tract infections and UTIs, improper handling of menstrual waste and improper menstrual hygiene can invite the human papillomavirus (HPV) to affect the cervix—the mouth of the uterus, where cervical cancer starts. There is not cure for cervical cancer, although there are some treatments which can help one manage it. The best way to prevent this from ever happening is to get the HPV vaccine and maintain good menstrual and personal hygiene.