Home Health News How Poor Menstrual Hygiene Can Potentially Lead To Cancer

How Poor Menstrual Hygiene Can Potentially Lead To Cancer

By Dr KV Krishnamani

Menstruation, a natural biological process, requires proper hygiene to prevent health complications. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, unhygienic menstrual practices persist due to a lack of awareness, education, and access to proper sanitary products. These practices can lead to severe health issues, including infections and, alarmingly, an increased risk of cancer. There is a critical link between unhygienic menstrual practices and cancer, and this emphasises the need for education and improved sanitary measures.

Immediate Health Impacts Of Unhygienic Menstrual Practices

Globally, millions of women and girls face challenges in managing menstruation safely and with dignity. Factors such as poverty, cultural taboos, and inadequate health education contribute to poor menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Many resort to using unsanitary materials like rags, old cloth, or even natural substances like sand and ash. Such practices can lead to infections, which, if untreated, might escalate into more serious conditions.

Poor menstrual hygiene can cause a range of infections, including urinary tract infections (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis, and reproductive tract infections (RTIs). These infections are not only painful but can also lead to severe reproductive health issues if not properly treated. The use of non-sterile materials, prolonged use of single sanitary products, and improper cleaning practices are major contributors to these health problems.

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How Poor Menstrual Hygiene Could Lead To Cancer

While the immediate health impacts of unhygienic menstrual practices are well-documented, the long-term consequences, such as cancer, are not widely understood, though critical. Here’s how poor menstrual hygiene can potentially lead to cancer:

Chronic Infections: Persistent infections caused by poor hygiene can lead to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for the development of cancers, particularly cervical cancer. The constant irritation and infection can cause cellular changes that may turn cancerous over time.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer: HPV is a leading cause of cervical cancer. Poor menstrual hygiene can increase susceptibility to HPV by weakening the vaginal and cervical mucosa, making it easier for the virus to infect and persist. Women who do not practice proper hygiene are at a higher risk of HPV infection, which significantly raises their risk of developing cervical cancer.

Use of Non-Sterile Materials: Many women in low-resource settings use materials that are not sterile, increasing the risk of introducing harmful bacteria and viruses into the reproductive tract. These pathogens can cause persistent infections that, over time, may contribute to the development of cancerous cells.

Studies conducted in various regions highlight the correlation between poor menstrual hygiene and increased cancer risk. For example, research in rural India has shown a higher prevalence of cervical abnormalities among women who use traditional, unsanitary methods for menstrual management. Similar findings have been reported in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where access to sanitary products is limited, and cultural practices discourage open discussion about menstruation.

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Awareness, Access, Vaccination — Ways To Address The Issue

Combatting the health risks associated with poor menstrual hygiene requires a multifaceted approach — from education to access to vaccination. 

Comprehensive education about menstrual hygiene is crucial. Menstrual education must start early. Schools and community programmes should provide information on the importance of using clean, sanitary products and changing them regularly. Breaking the taboo around menstruation through education can empower women to take better care of their health.

Governments and NGOs need to ensure that all women have access to affordable, high-quality sanitary products. Initiatives like distributing free sanitary pads in schools and communities can make a significant difference. Biodegradable pads with no synthetic material is available.

Regular gynecological check-ups and easy access to healthcare services are essential. Early detection of infections and timely treatment can prevent complications that may lead to cancer. PAP smear and HPV testing are advised every 3-5 years for women above 21 years of age.

HPV vaccine to prevent cervical, vulval and vaginal cancer is advised for girls between the ages of 9-22 years before commencement of sexual activity. 

Building proper sanitation facilities with clean water and private spaces for women to manage their menstruation is fundamental, especially in rural and underserved areas.

The link between unhygienic menstrual practices and cancer underscores the critical need for improved menstrual hygiene management. By addressing the root causes — lack of education, access to sanitary products, and proper healthcare — we can significantly reduce the risk of infections and subsequent health issues, including cancer. Ensuring that every woman and girl can manage her menstruation safely and with dignity is not just a matter of health, but a fundamental human right.

By Dr KV Krishnamani is a Medical Oncologist at the American Oncology Institute (AOI), Hyderabad.

Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is for general guidance only. Individual results may vary. It is important to consult a healthcare professional, who knows your body type and medical history, before implementing the suggestions and information provided herein.

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