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Women’s health: Key symptoms you should know

General Practitioner at Bupa UK
09 July 2020

This article was written in line with the current guidelines at the time of publishing.

Have you been putting your health concerns to one side during the coronavirus pandemic?

Online searches for women’s health services have significantly declined in recent months, as women turn to self-help measures to address their concerns at home instead. But, if you’re worried about any symptoms or notice any unusual changes to your body, it’s important to get them checked out as soon as possible. There are lots of healthcare services still running which you can now access from home. Many GPs are offering phone, online or video appointments where they can discuss your concerns and let you know if you need any further investigations or treatment.

Here I’ll look at some of the most common health concerns facing women and explain the key symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

Breast cancer

Cancer is caused when cells in your body grow in an uncontrolled way. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. But seeking help as soon as possible gives you the best chance of treatment and recovery.

Symptoms of breast cancer can include:

  • a lump or swelling in your breast, armpit or upper chest
  • discharge or bleeding from your nipple
  • a change in the way your skin looks and feels, for example redness, puckering or dimpling
  • redness, a rash or crusting on or around your nipple
  • a change to the shape or direction of your nipple
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast
  • pain or swelling in your breast or armpit that’s there most of the time

It’s important to check your breasts regularly and know what feels normal for you, so you can spot any changes early. Remember to check the whole area of both breasts, as well as your armpits and up to your collarbone. If you notice any changes to your breast, it’s important to contact your GP, even if you feel otherwise well.

Breast screening during coronavirus

In the UK, the NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all women aged between 50 and 70, who are registered with a GP, for a mammogram every three years. At the moment, there may be a delay in appointments because of coronavirus. But if you’ve been invited for screening, it’s important to attend your appointment as soon as it’s rescheduled. Screening can help to detect breast cancer as early as possible, even before you develop any symptoms.

Cervical cancer

Your cervix is where your lower womb and the top of your vagina join. Cervical cancer is caused when the cells of your cervix grow and multiply in an unusual and uncontrolled way. The main cause of cervical cancer is a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). In the UK, women between 25 and 64 are invited for cervical screening (a smear test) every few years to test for HPV. If you’re found to carry the virus, then the cells taken during your smear test will be examined further. This can detect any changes as early as possible and help to prevent cervical cancer.

You may not have any symptoms of cervical cancer, but if you do they may include:

  • having heavier periods than you usually do
  • bleeding in between your periods, during or after sex, or after the menopause
  • painful sex
  • a change to your discharge, for example an unpleasant smell, change of colour or consistency
  • pain in your lower back or between your hipbones (pelvis)
  • urine infections that keep coming back

If you’ve received an invitation for cervical screening, contact your GP surgery to discuss making an appointment. They will be able to tell you when appointments are available, and what safety measures they have in place. Or to find out more about cervical screening in your area during coronavirus, visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

Menopause

The menopause is the time when you stop having periods and can’t get pregnant anymore. It happens as a result of changes to your hormones when your ovaries stop producing eggs. The menopause is a normal part of getting older. It most commonly happens between the ages of 40 and 60 although this can vary, and the average age is around 51. Unfortunately, it can sometimes come with some unpleasant symptoms that can last several years.

Menopause symptoms can include:

  • irregular periods
  • hot flushes or night sweats
  • mood swings
  • trouble sleeping
  • vaginal dryness or itching
  • pain during sex
  • loss of sex drive
  • aches and pains in your muscles and joints
  • urinary problems, such as an infection, leaking or needing to wee more often
  • feeling very tired and having trouble concentrating

The menopause can be a difficult time even under normal circumstances. So dealing with symptoms throughout the pandemic may be even more challenging. Your symptoms could feel worse if you’ve been feeling stressed, drinking more alcohol, eating an unhealthy diet or not exercising properly during lockdown. Try to adopt a healthy lifestyle habits to help ease your symptoms, including:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • getting regular exercise
  • limiting your alcohol and caffeine intake
  • managing your stress levels

If you’re struggling to manage your symptoms, don’t suffer at home. Contact your GP for support and advice.

It’s also important to note that many of the symptoms of menopause listed above may be caused by lots of other conditions. Try not to be alarmed if you do experience anything unusual but make sure to get it checked with your GP as soon as possible.

Other key symptoms to look out for

The most important thing you can do is to get to know your body and what’s normal for you. If you have any unusual symptoms, make sure to contact your GP for advice and don’t delay asking for help.

Other symptoms that may be related to health conditions affecting women include:

  • severe period pain
  • difficulty becoming pregnant
  • pain when you wee or blood in your wee
  • pain in your lower tummy, thighs, pelvis or back
  • pain when you poo
  • swelling in your tummy
  • needing to wee more often or urgently

Look after your mental health

While it’s normal to feel anxious about your health if you’ve developed any unusual symptoms, your worries may be heightened due to the coronavirus pandemic. You may also be concerned about delays to screening services, accessing treatment, and your safety if you do go to a clinic or hospital. Remember to look after your mental health, take time out for relaxation and self-care, or speak to a friend or family member.

Contact your GP surgery to arrange a phone or video appointment. Your GP will be able to answer any questions you have. They can also help put your mind at ease, assess you and decide if you need a referral. If your GP does recommend a face-to-face appointment, remember there are lots of extra safety measures in place to help keep everyone safe.


Bupa offers digital GP services through different routes to suit you. If you have Bupa health insurance you have unlimited access to Digital GP appointments through the Digital GP app (in partnership with Babylon) and if you don't have health insurance, our remote private GP service is available to anyone who wishes to book a pay as you go video appointment with a private GP via Bupa Health Clinics.

Dr Samantha Wild
General Practitioner at Bupa UK

    • How might COVID-19 have affected people’s ability to see their GP? The Health Foundation. www.health.org.uk, published 1 May 2020
    • Next steps on general practice response to COVID-19. NHS England. www.england.nhs.uk, published 19 March 2020
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    • Breast cancer. Patient. www.patient.info/doctor, last edited 3 July 2016
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    • Cervical cancer symptoms. Jo’s cervical cancer trust. www.jostrust.org.uk, last updated 14 May 2020
    • Symptoms of cervical cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, accessed 1 July 2020
    • About cervical screening. Jo’s cervical cancer trust. www.jostrust.org.uk, last updated 11 June 2020
    • Endometriosis. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised February 2020
    • Fibroids. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised December 2018
    • Breast screening. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearch.org, last reviewed 18 October 2017

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