Women’s Health

From contraception and reproductive health to feminine hygiene and menstruation, all women should be aware of the options available to them, what’s healthy, and what’s a matter of concern. Luckily, there are many over-the-counter (OTC) products available to help along the way.

Reproductive Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines reproductive health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being” in all matters related to the reproductive system. This includes having a satisfying and safe sex life, with the freedom to decide if, and when, you want to have children (or get pregnant). There are OTC products available to aid your reproductive health.

Pregnancy Prevention

Several contraception, or birth control, options are available to women who want to prevent pregnancy until they are ready. From male and female condoms to spermicides and emergency contraception, many of these options are available over-the-counter in stores and online.

Male Condom

The male condom is a barrier form of birth control, generally made from latex, lambskin, or polyurethane. It is placed on an erect penis to prevent sperm from entering the vagina during intercourse and reaching an unfertilized egg. When used correctly, most male condoms can also help to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs); however, lambskin or other natural condoms do not provide STI protection. The use of male condoms does not completely eliminate the risks of pregnancy or STIs. The typical use of male condoms, which is the average way most people use them, has a failure rate of 14-15%. That means that 14-15 people out of every 100 will become pregnant during the first year of use.

Common male condom brands:
  • Durex
  • Sustain Natural®
  • Trojan™

Female Condom

The female condom is a barrier form of birth control, made up of a thin, soft, loose-fitting pouch with a flexible, soft ring on each end that is worn by the woman to prevent sperm from reaching an unfertilized egg. When used correctly, female condoms can also help to prevent STIs, although more research is needed as they are not considered to be as effective as male condoms in protecting against STIs. The typical use of female condoms, which is the average way most people use them, has a failure rate of 21%. This means that 21 people out of every 100 will become pregnant during the first year of use.

Common female condom brand:
  • FC2®

Spermicides

Spermicides are a barrier form of birth control that is put deeply inside the vagina and assists in preventing pregnancy by stopping and killing sperm before they can reach an unfertilized egg. The only chemical available in spermicides in the United States is nonoxynol-9, which can be delivered in various ways, including sponges, foams, gels, and films that dissolve when exposed to moisture. Instructions and effectiveness rates differ for each type of spermicide, so make sure to read and follow the label carefully before use. Spermicides do not protect against STIs – always use a condom to reduce the risk.

Common OTC spermicide brands:
  • Nonoxynol 9
    Today Sponge®, Vaginal Contraceptive Film®

Emergency Contraception

If you did not use birth control or your regular birth control fails, OTC emergency contraception can be taken to help prevent pregnancy before it starts. Also known as the “morning-after pill” or “Plan B” emergency contraception should be taken as soon as possible within 72 hours (3 days) after unprotected sex or birth control failure. It works by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. About 87 out of 100 women who would have become pregnant will not become pregnant after using emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel. Emergency contraception shouldn’t be used as regular birth control, because it is not as effective, and will not work if you are already pregnant. It is available right off the shelf at major retailers with no age restriction or prescription needed.

Common OTC emergency contraception brands:
  • Levonorgestrel
    Plan B One-Step®, Take Action™, Aftera™, Preventeza™

Pregnancy

If you are considering having a baby, you have likely wondered how long it will take to get pregnant, when to have sex, and how often. For most couples, the odds that a woman will become pregnant are 15-25% in any given month. However, factors like age, irregular menstrual cycles, and medical conditions can affect a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. There are several OTC products available to help plan and detect a pregnancy.

At-Home Ovulation Tests

At-home ovulation tests help to determine the time in a woman’s menstrual cycle when becoming pregnant is most likely. They work by detecting a rise in luteinizing hormone (LH) through a urine sample, as a rise in this hormone signals a woman’s ovary to release the egg. This is when pregnancy is most likely to occur.

Common at-home ovulation test brands:
  • Clearblue®
  • e.p.t.®

At-Home Pregnancy Tests

Perhaps your period is late, or maybe you are experiencing early pregnancy symptoms such as tender breasts. One way to find out if you are pregnant is by taking an at-home pregnancy test. These tests work by measuring your body’s level of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone that is only produced during pregnancy, through a urine sample. If the results are positive, you should make an appointment with your doctor to have the pregnancy confirmed. If the results are negative, wait another week and if you still haven’t started your period you should complete the test again.

Common at-home pregnancy test brands:
  • Clearblue®
  • e.p.t.®
  • First Response™

Sexual Comfort

A number of problems can affect the ability to have or enjoy sex. In fact, about 4 in 10 women have problems with sex at some point during their lives. While sexual discomfort can require a consultation with your gynecologist or other healthcare provider, there are some OTC solutions to consider.

Personal Lubricants

Usually, sexual excitement leads to natural vaginal lubrication. But dryness and irritation may become a problem due to hormonal changes during menstruation and menopause, aging, or taking certain medications. A personal lubricant may help prevent itching, burning, chaffing, and other discomfort. You can buy lubricants online or at your local drugstore.

Common OTC personal lubricant brands:
  • GoodSense®
  • K-Y® Jelly
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Safe use tips for reproductive health products

Always read the Drug Facts label carefully. The label tells you everything you need to know about the product, including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should use, and when you should not use the product.

Do not use a condom past its expiration date. Never reuse a condom. This increases the risk of pregnancy and passing on STIs. Never use a male condom with a female condom, as this can cause tearing.

Spermicide products are for vaginal use only and are not for rectal (anal) use. Do not use a spermicide product past its expiration date.

Emergency contraception products will not protect against STIs. Do not use emergency contraception if you have ever had an allergic reaction to levonorgestrel. Ask a doctor or pharmacist before use if you are taking efavirenz (HIV medication), or rifampin (tuberculosis treatment), or medication for seizures (epilepsy). These medications may reduce the effectiveness of levonorgestrel.

If irritation or discomfort occurs when using a lubricant, discontinue use and consult a doctor or other healthcare provider.

If you have any questions on how to use reproductive health products, please consult a doctor or other healthcare provider.

Keep all medicines out of the sight and reach of children.

Feminine Hygiene

While vaginas are naturally self-cleansing, let’s face it: many women have had times when they’ve noticed itching, an uncomfortable odor, or other discomfort. Sometimes it’s due to a vaginal or urinary tract infection. Other times it’s related to external factors – such as fluctuating hormone levels, wearing tight underwear or pants, or using harsh soaps.

You should always speak with your gynecologist or other healthcare provider about any concerning symptoms. However, there are OTC products available to assist with daily hygiene and the treatment of symptoms associated with yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and more.

Daily Hygiene

To maintain vulvar (the external part of the female genitalia) and vaginal health, a woman must ensure pH and bacterial balance. Doing so will help prevent infections and discomfort. While there are several actions you can take to care for your vulva and vagina, such as wearing 100% cotton underwear and using a mild soap for washing underclothes, there are also OTC products available to help.

Feminine Washes

Cleansing the vulva should be a part of your daily hygiene routine. While warm water or unscented and mild soap is all you need to adequately clean the vulva, there are some OTC products available to help with cleansing, moisturizing, or freshening up.

Common OTC feminine wash brands:
  • Witch hazel
    TUCKS®
  • Summer’s Eve®
  • Vagisil®

Vaginal Infections

Itching or irritation can occur anywhere on our bodies. Yet, when it occurs in an area as sensitive as the vagina or vulva, it can be especially uncomfortable. While most cases of genital itching and irritation aren’t necessarily a major concern, it’s always a good idea to call your healthcare provider as it can be a sign of an infection. There are also OTC products available to help treat certain infections or safely relieve their symptoms.

Anti-Itch & Yeast Infection Treatments

If you are experiencing irritation, burning, or itchiness, along with a thick, often white-colored vaginal discharge, you may have a yeast infection. Nearly three out of every four women will develop a yeast infection at some point in their lives. It occurs when there is an overgrowth of the fungus candida albicans, which can be triggered by certain antibiotics, menstruation, hormonal changes, immune deficiencies, and even wearing wet underwear or bathing suits for too long. Luckily, there are OTC antifungal treatments that can treat and cure the infection.

Common OTC anti-itch & antifungal treatment brands:

Urinary Tract Infection Symptom Treatments

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common, mainly because of a woman’s anatomy. Harmful bacteria from the anus can enter the urethra, which leads to the bladder. Symptoms include painful burning upon urination, an urge to urinate (but not much comes out), back or pelvic pain, and bloody or cloudy urine, sometimes with a strong smell.

You can reduce your risk of a UTI by staying hydrated, drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry pills, wiping from front to back, and emptying your bladder after intercourse. Once you have a UTI, prescribed antibiotics are typically necessary, but some OTC products can help to alleviate the pain and discomfort that accompanies UTIs.

Common OTC UTI symptom relief brands:
  • Phenazopyridine Hydrochloride
    AZO, Reese’s Preferred®, Uricalm®
  • Methenamine
    Cystex®
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Safe use tips for feminine hygiene products

Always read the Drug Facts label carefully. The label tells you everything you need to know about the product, including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should use, and when you should not use the product.

Use feminine washes externally. Wash from front to back when using wipes.

Anti-itch products are for external use only. Do not apply them over large areas of the body. Before using anti-itch products to treat children under 12 years of age, consult a doctor.

Before using an OTC yeast infection treatment, talk to your doctor if it is the first time you have had symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection. Also consult your doctor if you have infections often, or before using to treat children under 12 years of age.

OTC urinary tract infection products will treat urinary symptoms but will not cure a urinary tract infection. Take any antibiotic that your doctor prescribes to treat an infection. Those under 18 years of age should only use OTC urinary tract infection products as directed by a doctor.

Keep all medicines out of the sight and reach of children.

Menstrual Health

From the onset of menstruation to menopause, a woman’s body experiences a monthly menstrual cycle. During this monthly cycle, which typically lasts 28 days, the lining of a woman’s uterus builds up to prepare for a potential pregnancy. If you do not get pregnant, your hormone levels begin to fall, and very low levels of estrogen and progesterone tell your body to begin menstruating. During menstruation, or your “period,” the blood and tissue lining the uterus (womb) breaks down and leaves the body. For many women, menstrual bleeding can last from four to eight days. There are several OTC products available to make that time of the month less uncomfortable.

Menstrual Personal Care

Blood is a favorable environment for bacteria to grow, which is why it is recommended to rinse the genital area at least twice a day while on your period. There are also sanitary products available that absorb or collect the blood and tissue that comes out of your vagina during your period.

Tampons

No one wants their monthly flow to leak. One way to prevent that is by using a tampon, typically a cotton, organic cotton, or rayon-based plug that a woman inserts into her vagina during her period. Tampons, which come in different absorbency levels, must be changed every four to eight hours.

Common tampon brands:
  • Playtex®
  • Sustain Natural®
  • Tampax®

Menstrual Pads

A menstrual pad is a rectangle of absorbent material that sticks to your underwear to collect menstrual blood. Just like tampons, pads come in different absorbency levels. They should be changed when they are soaked with blood, or every three to four hours.

Common menstrual pad brands:
  • Always®
  • Poise®
  • Sustain Natural®

Menstrual Cups

Unlike tampons or menstrual pads, a menstrual cup collects your flow instead of absorbing it. Menstrual cups are an eco-friendly alternative as they are reusable. It is a bell-shaped rubber, silicone, or soft plastic device you insert into your vagina to collect the blood. Cups come in different sizes and can be used for six to 12 hours, depending on the brand.

Common menstrual cup brands:
  • Sustain Natural®
  • Tampax®

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a combination of physical and emotional symptoms that many women experience in the lead up or during their period. In fact, more than 90 percent of women report PMS – such as bloating, cramps, headaches, and mood swings. There are OTC products available to relieve some of these symptoms.

Menstrual Cramps

Unfortunately, most women experience painful menstrual cramps in their lower abdomen or back, either before or during menstruation. The cramps are triggered by prostaglandins, a hormone-like substance in the uterine lining. Many OTC medicines can relieve menstrual cramps.

Common OTC menstrual cramp relief brands:
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Safe use tips for feminine hygiene products

Always read the Drug Facts label carefully. The label tells you everything you need to know about the product, including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should use, and when you should not use the product.

Tampons and menstrual cups are associated with toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but serious disease that may cause death. Never wear a tampon for more than eight hours. Remove the tampon or menstrual cup immediately and call for medical help if you get a sudden fever, or feel faint, have nausea, diarrhea, fever, and a rash that looks like sunburn – all signs of toxic shock.

Never use a tampon or menstrual cup when you don’t have your period. Make sure you wash your hands before and after each use. Clean menstrual cups thoroughly after use.

Some OTCs used to relieve menstrual cramps contain caffeine. Avoid getting extra caffeine from other sources, such as coffee or soda, when taking these medicines.

When taking menstrual cramp relief OTCs that contain an antihistamine, avoid alcoholic beverages and use caution when driving as these medicines can make you drowsy.

Keep all medicines out of the sight and reach of children.

Homeopathic Products

Some women prefer homeopathic products to treat problems with their feminine health such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menstrual cramps, and yeast infections. These types of products are derived from botanical, mineral, or biological substances and can be purchased at drugstores and health food stores. The dosage and quality of these products depend on the manufacturer. Women who are pregnant or nursing should consult their healthcare provider before taking a homeopathic product.

Common OTC homeopathic feminine health brands:
  • Boiron®
  • Hyland’s®
  • Lydia Pinkham®