Getting my period was one of the great injustices of my life. I still feel ripped off, decades later. Not only did I have the incredible misfortune of being just 10 years old when Aunt Flo first visited, but she also stayed for two full weeks and caused crippling, nauseating pain. I was still playing with Barbies, for crying out loud. Scooby-Doo was my favourite TV show. My primary school had only one toilet cubicle available to students that had a sanitary bin. It was most decidedly unfair.
My period's early arrival is only one of the grievances I have associated with menstruation. Thankfully the intense pain and ridiculous duration gradually reduced during my teens, but – like most women – I still experience a certain amount of period pain. Left unattended, it can quickly spiral to a level that is unbearable. Astoundingly, it wasn't until I was 28 that I learned that the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) naproxen is particularly effective at treating period pain. And it was only this week, when I read a now-viral tweet, that I learned that NSAIDs can potentially reduce menstrual flow by 30-40 per cent.
How is it possible that I have gone almost 20 years not knowing information so pertinent to me that I could have put it into practice approximately 240 times? I'm far from alone. The tweet I read this week has been "favourited" 122,000 times. I can't count the occasions when I've reached for paracetamol to no avail, when opting instead for naproxen or even bog-standard ibuprofen would've served me much better. I understand that such information might've been difficult to communicate to a 10-year-old, but surely sometime during my teens (or even my early 20s) a doctor, nurse or teacher could've imparted the knowledge.
And yes, before someone points out the obvious, I could've googled period-related search terms and found much of this information for myself. But when you grow up being told that period pain is just an unfortunate part of being a woman, you don't tend to seek out further information for yourself unless you experience severe discomfort. And even those who deal with extreme period pain and seek medical help for it have no guarantee of being taken seriously. Staggeringly, it takes an average of eight years from the initial reporting of symptoms to a health professional until a diagnosis of endometriosis is finally made.
Most of us begin menstruating when we are still children, relying on information (of varying reliability) from parents, teachers and friends, and often feeling ashamed by an entirely normal function of our bodies. When you're told over and over that period pain is normal, you don't think to ask questions. When you're ashamed of your period, you don't want to ask questions. Which is why we need to foster open communication around taboo subjects like periods, and create better educational resources for girls and young women.
A lack of information around women's health is only one part of a larger problem. Cost and frankly stupid regulations are other factors in compounding women's health problems. They need addressing too.
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One example that makes me wild with frustration is Canesten (or the generic fluconazole), a medication given for vaginal thrush. While some women are lucky and experience thrush rarely, if ever; a number of others get thrush relatively regularly. It can be caused by many different things, from antibiotics, to menstruation, to stress (and, it should be noted, it has nothing to do with poor hygiene). Basically, the balance of microbes inside the vagina is delicate, and if it is upset, thrush is a common result.
Canesten, if you buy it over the counter, will cost you a bomb. I've been charged $40 for it in the past. The price differs depending on whether you buy the cream and the tablet, or the tablet alone, but either way it's far more expensive than it should be. Luckily, you can get it prescribed by a GP, which will mean you'll only be charged a "prescription surcharge" (usually around $5), but – here's the kicker – you can only be prescribed one tablet at a time (unless you visit a specialist). Given how common thrush is, it would seem logical that women who experience thrush regularly could be prescribed multiple doses by their doctors, but no. A ridiculous regulation means that women have to either pay through the nose for over-the-counter medication or pay for a prescription every time they get thrush. Which, as it can be caused by menstruation, could happen as often as monthly.
Of course, it's not only women who pay more for over-the-counter medicines, but given that as many as 95 per cent of women experience issues with their periods, women likely buy significantly more pain relief. For example, there is an over-the-counter medication called Naprogesic that will set you back about $25 at a general pharmacy (or around $13 at Chemist Warehouse). It is exactly the same drug as naproxen, which can be prescribed by a doctor and will only cost you a prescription surcharge. The same goes for ibuprofen, which can be bought over the counter as Nurofen, and paracetamol, which retails as Panadol. Next time you go to the doctor for any reason, I suggest taking a shopping list of basic medicines such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, naproxen and fluconazole with you and getting them prescribed. The savings are eye-opening.
It's time that we started sharing our knowledge about women's health and wellbeing openly and widely. I want every teen and pre-teen girl to know about naproxen and ibuprofen from the moment they start their period – not decades later.
And as for Canesten/fluconazole, I'd like to issue a "please explain" to Pharmac. Why on earth would you restrict such a common drug that a number of women need regularly? Surely women deserve better.