Fact, Fiction or Fickle: Women’s Health Myths

A guide to common health myths and if they are fact, fiction or fickle. This week we tackle women's health.


This week, we tackle myths surrounding breast health, menopause, prenatal health and menstruation. Check back next week when we bust nutrition myths.

BREAST HEALTH

Expert: Robert D. Legare, MD,
Co-Director of Breast Health Center,
Women and Infants Hospital

Myth: Wearing a bra to bed increases your risk of breast cancer.

FICTION

While sources in the lay media and internet suggest otherwise, there is no data to support this. The presumed risk has been possibly attributed to a change in lymphatic flow, pressure from the bra fitting tightly or from the bra wire causing repeated pressure to the same area or blocking pores within the skin. According to the American Cancer Society, there is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim. Moreover, a recent study of more than 1, 400 women found no link between breast cancer risk and bra use.

 

Myth: Wearing certain deodorants or antiperspirants increases your risk of breast cancer.

FICTION

While it is not clear how this particular myth got started, there is no data to suggest that nicks incurred during shaving allow breast cancer-causing chemicals to enter the body, or that by inhibiting perspiration, one is preventing breast cancer causing toxins from leaving the body.  While parabens (chemicals used as preservatives and as food additives) can be found in many types of makeup and skin care products and have weak estrogen-like properties, there is no clear data linking parabens to breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society acknowledges that “people concerned about exposure to parabens can avoid products containing them,” but they also note that most major brands of antiperspirants and deodorants do not currently contain parabens.

MENOPAUSE

Expert: Ruben Alvero, MD,
Director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, Women and Infants Hospital

Myth: Women only enter menopause after age fifty.

FICTION

While the average age of menopause in the United States is fifty-one, women can enter menopause much earlier. Women should also understand that while menopause is the final cessation of menstrual cycles, they can have earlier symptoms (such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness and mood swings), a condition known as the perimenopause, for several years before the last menstrual cycle. If women have surgery that removes the ovaries or chemotherapy/radiation treatments that render the ovaries non-functional, they would then very quickly enter menopause. Uncommonly, some women spontaneously enter menopause earlier than age forty. This is called primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) or premature menopause. Women who have POI should be evaluated for genetic and autoimmune conditions that may lead to this condition.

Myth: Menopause will decrease your sex drive.

FICKLE

Sex drive, or libido, is a complex human behavior that may have physical, emotional or situational causes (sometimes all three at once!). Overcoming a low libido first involves exploring and identifying causes, anything from low estrogen levels and life stressors to changing relationships. Physically, there is no silver bullet, but in some cases hormonal replacement can help. Women who are entering menopause should understand that menopause intrinsically should not cause low libido but may often require overcoming external factors. And reassurance is important: Women should expect a healthy sexual life after menopause.

PRENATAL HEALTH

Experts: Lisa Boyle, MD, Center for Ob/Gyn; President of the Medical Staff, Women and Infants Hospital

and

Expert: James O’Brien, MD,
Director of Inpatient Obstetrics,
Women and Infants Hospital

Myth: Pregnant women shouldn’t get the flu vaccine.

FICTION

The CDC recommends that pregnant women should receive the flu vaccine during any trimester in pregnancy. Flu shots are a safe way to protect women and their unborn children from serious complications of the flu such as pneumonia and even death.  They have not been shown to cause harm in pregnant women or their babies. Furthermore, the vaccine in pregnancy is the only protection for the newborn through vertical transmission of immunity through the mother, as children cannot get vaccinated until six months of age.

Myth: Women can get “baby brain” during pregnancy.

F A C T

Although women’s brain capacity does not change during pregnancy or menopause, many women experience compromised short term memory, or “forgetfulness” during these stages. This is thought to be due to hormonal fluctuations and lack of sleep during these times, and subsequently feeling not as “sharp” as one might when they are fully rested. Add sleep deprivation to being busy and stressed, and you have a perfect set up for memory lapses and forgetfulness.

Myth: Breast feeding is better for both infants and mothers.

F A C T 

Advantages to the baby include lower risk of a wide range of infections including meningitis, ear and respiratory infections, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal infectious conditions. Additional benefits include lower risk of obesity, allergies and asthma, diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome as well as slightly enhanced performance on tests of cognitive development. Advantages to the mom include decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, lower blood loss after delivery and more rapid return of the uterus to normal size. There are also family and societal benefits related to improved newborn and maternal health, which includes lower utilization of health care services and savings to the family compared to formula-fed babies.

MENSTRUATION

Expert: Renee Eger, MD, Medical Director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Care Center, Women and Infants Hospital

Myth: Women who spend a lot of time together sync period cycles.

FICKLE

There is some evidence that women who spend considerable time together do indeed have menstrual cycles that appear to mimic them. In particular, this may be true for college students.

Myth: Hot tea helps alleviate cramps.

FICKLE

There is one study from Taiwan which shows that the use of Rose Tea in adolescents may help decrease the amount of painful periods, but the data is very limited.

Myth: “All natural” tampons or menstrual cups are safer and healthier to use than regular tampons.

FICTION

There is no data suggesting that “all natural” tampons are safer or healthier for women. That being said, the use of fragrance-free products is always a good idea.

Myth: You can’t get pregnant when you’re on your period.

FICTION

Women who use a highly effective form of contraception such as birth control pills or IUDs are unlikely to get pregnant during their period. However, women who are not using contraception or who use a barrier form of contraception such as a condom, diaphragm or cervical cap, may ovulate during their menstrual cycle and thus be at risk for pregnancy.

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