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Lesbian Health

Q: What challenges do lesbian women face in the health care system?

A: Lesbians face unique challenges within the system that can cause poorer mental and physical health. Many doctors, nurses, and other health care providers have not had sufficient training to understand the specific health experiences of lesbians, or that women who are lesbians, like heterosexual women, can be healthy normal females. There can be barriers to optimal health for lesbians, such as:

  • Fear of negative reactions from their doctors if they disclose their sexual orientation.
  • Doctors’ lack of understanding of lesbians’ disease risks, and issues that may be important to lesbians.
  • Lack of health insurance because of no domestic partner benefits.
  • Low perceived risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases and some types of cancer.

For the above reasons, lesbians often avoid routine health exams and even delay seeking medical care when health problems occur.

Q: What are important health issues for lesbians to discuss with their doctors or nurses?

Lesbians often feel they have to conceal their lesbian status to family, friends, and employers. Lesbians can also be recipients of hate crimes and violence. Despite strides in our larger society, discrimination against lesbians does exist, and discrimination for any reason may lead to depression and anxiety.

An estimated five to 10 percent of women of childbearing age have PCOS (ages 20-40). There is evidence that lesbians may have a higher rate of PCOS than heterosexual women.

Q: What other STDs can lesbian women get?

STD Symptoms
Chlamydia

Most women have no symptoms. Women with symptoms may have:

  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • burning when urinating
  • bleeding between menstrual periods

Infections that are not treated, even if there are no symptoms, can lead to:

  • lower abdominal pain
  • low back pain
  • nausea
  • fever
  • pain during sex
  • bleeding between periods
Gonorrhea

Symptoms are often mild, but most women have no symptoms. Even when women have symptoms, they can sometimes be mistaken for a bladder or other vaginal infection. Symptoms are:

  • pain or burning when urinating
  • yellowish and sometimes bloody vaginal discharge
  • bleeding between menstrual periods
Hepatitis B

Some women have no symptoms. Women with symptoms may have:

HIV/AIDS

Some women may have no symptoms for 10 years or more. Women with symptoms may have:

Pubic Lice
  • itching
  • finding lice

Q: What can lesbian women do to protect their health?

A:

  • Find a doctor who is sensitive to your needs to help you get regular check ups. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association provides online health care referrals. You can access their database of members at www.glma.org/programs/prp/index.shtml or contact them at (415) 255-4547.
  • Get a Pap test. The Pap test finds changes in your cervix early, so you can be treated before the problem becomes serious. Begin getting Pap tests no later than age 21 or within three years of first having sexual intercourse. After two to three yearly Pap tests have been normal, talk to your doctor or nurse about getting a Pap test at least once every three years.
  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about an HPV test if your Pap test is abnormal. In combination with a Pap test, an HPV test helps prevent cervical cancer. It can detect the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an HPV DNA test for women for the following uses:
  • as a follow-up to a Pap test with results that are abnormal
  • in combination with a Pap test in women aged 30 and older
  • Practice safer sex. Get tested for STD’s like chlamydia or herpes before beginning a relationship. If you’re unsure about a partner’s status, practice methods to reduce the likelihood of sharing vaginal fluid or blood, including condoms on sex toys.
  • Have a balanced, healthy diet. Eat a variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These foods give you energy, plus vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Besides, they taste good! Try foods like brown rice or whole-wheat bread. Bananas, strawberries, and melons are some great tasting fruits. Try vegetables raw, on a sandwich, or in a salad. Be sure to pick a variety of colors and kinds of fruits and vegetables. You can vary the form — try fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. Read more about having a healthy diet at https://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/diet.htm.
  • Drink moderately. If you drink alcohol, don’t have more than one drink per day. Too much alcohol raises blood pressure and can raise your risk for stroke, heart disease, osteoporosis, many cancers, and other problems.
  • Get moving. An active lifestyle can help every woman. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week can greatly improve your health and decrease your risk of heart disease and some cancers!
  • Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, try to quit. Avoid second hand smoke as much as you can. Read more about quitting at https://www.womenshealth.gov/QuitSmoking.
  • Try different strategies to deal with your stress. Stress from discrimination is a tough challenge in the life of every lesbian. Relax using deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and massage therapy. You can also take a few minutes to sit and listen to soothing music, or read a book. Talk to your friends or get help from a professional if you need it.
  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about screening tests you may need. Regular preventive screenings are critical to staying healthy. All the tests that heterosexual women need, lesbian women need too. See these online charts for screening guidelines for different age groups: www.womenshealth.gov/screeningcharts.
  • Get help for domestic violence. Call the police or leave if you or your children are in danger! Call a crisis hotline or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE or TDD 800-787-3224, which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in English, Spanish, and other languages. The Helpline can give you the phone numbers of local hotlines and other resources.
  • Build strong bones. Exercise. Get a bone density test. Learn more about that at: https://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/osteopor.htm. Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D each day. Reduce your chances of falling by making your home safer. For example, use a rubber bathmat in the shower or tub. Keep your floors free from clutter. Lastly, talk to your doctor or nurse about taking medicines to prevent or treat bone loss.
  • Know the Signs of a Heart Attack. Women are less likely than men to believe they are having a heart attack and more likely to delay in seeking treatment. For women, chest pain may not be the first sign your heart is in trouble. Before a heart attack, women have said that they have unusual tiredness, trouble sleeping, problems breathing, indigestion, and anxiety. These symptoms can happen a month or so before the heart attack. During a heart attack, women often have these symptoms:
  • Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.
  • Know the Signs of a Stroke. The signs of a stroke happen suddenly and are different from the signs of a heart attack. Signs you should look for are weakness or numbness on one side of your body, dizziness, loss of balance, confusion, trouble talking or understanding speech, headache, nausea, or trouble walking or seeing. Remember: Even if you have a “mini-stroke,” you may have some of these signs.

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