Women and girls may have higher risk of painful periods if they’re exposed to air pollutants: study

TORONTO — Women and girls who are exposed to air pollutants over a long period may have a higher risk of developing frequent and severe cramps during menstruation, according to a large study.

The study, conducted by researchers from China Medical University Hospital in Taiwan, looked at the association between air quality and the development of dysmenorrhea, which is a common gynecological disorder affecting 16 to 91 per cent of girls and women of reproductive age. Of those, two to 29 per cent experience such painful symptoms that they’re unable to go about their daily activities.

In addition to painful cramps symptoms of dysmenorrhea, some of which can be life-long, can include pain in the lower abdomen, pain in the lower back and legs, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, weakness, fatigue, and headaches.

The disorder can be caused by hormonal imbalances or underlying gynecological conditions, such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, or tumors in the pelvic cavity.

And while there is no known cure for dysmenorrhea, symptoms can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and hormonal contraceptives.

According to Chung Y. Hsu, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the College of Medicine at China Medical University, previous research has already shown that women who smoke or drink alcohol during their periods, who are overweight, had their first period at a young age, or who have never been pregnant, have a greater risk of dysmenorrhea.

“But here we demonstrate for the first time another important risk factor for developing dysmenorrhea: air quality, in particular long-term exposure to pollution,” he said in a press release.

“We don’t yet know the underlying mechanism, but emotional stress in women exposed to air pollutants, or higher average levels of the hormone-like prostaglandins in their body, might be part of the answer.”

To reach this conclusion, the researchers studied public health data from national databases on 296,078 Taiwanese women and girls between 16 to 55 years old from 2000 to 2013.

The study sample only included women and girls without any recorded history of dysmenorrhea before 2000.

The academics compared the health measures data with the women and girls’ exposure to air pollutants, such as nitrogen and carbon oxides and fine particulate matter to see if there was an association between the risk of dysmenorrhea and air quality.

They found that 4.2 per cent of women and girls in the studied sample were diagnosed with dysmenorrhea for the first time and that those who were younger, had a lower income, and lived in more urbanized areas had a higher risk of developing the disorder.

What’s more, the study showed the risk of dysmenorrhea among women and girls who lived in areas with the highest levels of air pollutants over the 13-year period was 33 times higher than for those who were exposed to lower levels of pollutants.

According to the findings, the greatest individual effect from long-term exposure to air pollutants came from fine particulate matter; although, nitrogen oxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide also contributed to the increased risk of dysmenorrhea.

“Our results study demonstrate the major impact of the quality of air on human health in general, here specifically on the risk of dysmenorrhea in women and girls. This is a clear illustration of the need to for actions by governmental agencies and citizens to reduce air pollution, in order to improve human health,” Hsu said.

The results of the study have been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Public Health.  

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