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May 15, 2017

5 Health Conditions Women Miss

by John Hastings

You feel bloated. You’re thirsty all the time. You’re just…tired. These might just be the signs of a stressful schedule and imperfect diet. Unfortunately, vague and easy-to-ignore symptoms can also signal something more serious, says Penny Stern, MD, MPH, director of preventive medicine at the Center for Equity Care at the Katz Institute for Women’s Health. Women can go years without recognizing or getting the help they need for a potentially grave condition. “Pay close attention to your body, because these symptoms may your chance to catch a condition early enough to get successful treatment,” she says. “If something really doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” Here’s what you should know about five common health conditions that women often overlook.

Hepatitis C

A viral infection of the liver, hepatitis C may cause fatigue or fever early on, only to go quiet for years, says Dr. Stern. “But in the late stages, the condition turns very serious, with liver damage or even liver failure.” Up to 4 million people in the United States are thought to have chronic hepatitis C – and baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, are at greatest risk. In fact, they’re five times more likely to be infected than other adults, possibly because they were exposed before there was widespread screening of the blood supply. Because the condition is both silent and dangerous (it’s the leading cause of liver cancer), the CDC recommends that everyone in this age range get a one-time test for the disease. The good news if you’re diagnosed with hepatitis C: With treatment, people can recover, Dr. Stern says.

Type 2 Diabetes

People can live with type 2 diabetes (the most common kind of diabetes) for quite a while without realizing it, because early signs are easy to write off: thirst, hunger, fatigue. “You may not have any symptoms that would make you get tested,” Dr. Stern says. That’s why experts recommend routine testing for type 2 diabetes starting at age 45. If you have risk factors for diabetes (for instance, you’re overweight or obese, or have a family history of the disease), your doctor may test you earlier.

Lupus

Doctors don’t know what triggers this disease, in which the immune system can damage organs throughout the body, but they do know that it targets mostly women -- at least 80% of sufferers are female. (In fact, most autoimmune diseases are much more likely to affect women.) While there’s no cure for lupus, medications and lifestyle changes can reduce its impact on your health. The tricky part is getting a diagnosis, says Dr. Stern. “Some people get the classic butterfly-shaped rash across their cheeks, but many people don’t.” Other common symptoms include joint pain or swelling, fatigue and fever.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Acne, irregular periods, weight gain and hair growth on the face, chest, stomach or thighs -- these may all be signs of PCOS, a condition in which women produce too much male hormone. It’s surprisingly common, affecting one in ten women of childbearing age. Its cause is unclear, but the hallmark of the disease is that it causes problems in the ovaries that can prevent eggs from developing normally. As a result, PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women. “Often women have PCOS for a decade or two, and only find out when they’re unable to conceive,” says Dr. Stern. Once it’s diagnosed, medication and lifestyle changes can help you manage it, which can raise your chances of getting pregnant and reduce your risk of other health problems linked to PCOS, like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Ovarian Cancer

The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the more treatable it is. Unfortunately, this disease is difficult to find early on; indeed, it’s sometimes called “the silent killer.” But, says Dr. Stern, “we now know there are early symptoms.” These can include bloating; feeling full too quickly when you eat; abdominal, back, or pelvic pain; and vaginal bleeding between periods or after menopause. Some women are at higher risk for ovarian cancer and should pay particularly close attention to these signs, says Dr. Stern. If you have a close family member (like your mother, sister, aunt or grandmother) with ovarian cancer, your risk of developing the disease yourself may be higher. The same is true if you have endometriosis, have had breast, uterine, or colon cancer, or are of Eastern European (or “Ashkenazi”) Jewish descent.