Avoiding an unwanted pregnancy is women’s biggest reproductive concern, a survey by Public Health England suggests.
More than 7,000 women responded to the first poll of its kind launched by the health body to guide future policy.
Having an enjoyable sex life and managing painful and/or embarrassing symptoms such as heavy periods came second and third.
Catching a sexually transmitted disease was seventh on the concern list.
Going for reproductive health screening, including smear tests, was fourth, “Other” reproductive health symptoms was fifth. And difficulty getting pregnant was sixth.
What happens during a smear test?
Different issues took on relatively greater or lesser importance at different stages of a woman’s life.
The women who responded were aged 16 and older and living in England.
Among other findings:
- Most women who were sexually active were using at least one method of contraception
- About a third of women currently using contraception reported using a coil (intra-uterine device) or implant
- Another third said they were using the pill
- Condoms were also a popular but not necessarily regular choice
- 12% of 16- to 24 year-olds said they did not use any regular contraception, compared with 33% of 35- to 44-year-olds and 45% of 45- to 54-year-olds
About a third of the women had experienced severe reproductive health symptoms in the past 12 months, ranging from heavy menstrual bleeding to menopause, and incontinence to infertility.
In-depth interviews revealed that these symptoms often affected women’s ability to carry out daily activities, yet many concealed their symptoms from work colleagues.
Embarrassment commonly acted as a barrier to accessing knowledge or support.
Angela Kilcoyne, who took part in a PHE focus group, said: “Since I was 13, I have felt embarrassed about having heavy menstrual bleeding – a health issue which has caused me debilitating pain and nausea. I worked for years in banking, which was a very male dominated environment, and I never told my managers that I was off due to horrendous period pain.
“I would have to invent reasons month after month and soldier on. Or I would dose myself up and try and get through the day best I could, then collapse when I got home. Reproductive health should be spoken about in the workplace in the same way as sickness or flu.”
Dr Sue Mann, public health consultant in reproductive health, from Public Health England, said: “Women’s reproductive health concerns can fundamentally influence physical and mental wellbeing throughout their whole life course.
“Our research has highlighted that while individual reproductive health issues and concerns change throughout a woman’s life, the feelings of stigmatisation and embarrassment were almost universal.
“The report reveals the need for an open and supportive approach in the workplace and in the health system.
“We encourage women to seek support from their workplace, and for workplace management to be aware of how reproductive health symptoms can affect women’s daily life.”
Public Health England is drawing up a five-year action plan to promote women’s reproductive health.