What challenges do lesbian women face in the health care system?
What are important health issues for lesbians to discuss with their doctors or nurses?
Are lesbian and bisexual women at risk of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
What can lesbian women do to protect their health?
Lesbians and bisexual women face unique problems within the health care system that can hurt their health. Many health care professionals have not had enough training to know the specific health issues that lesbians and bisexuals face. They may not ask about sexual orientation when taking personal health histories. Health care professionals may not think that a lesbian or bisexual woman, like any woman, can be a healthy, normal female.
Things that can stop lesbians and bisexual women from getting good health care include:
For these reasons, lesbian and bisexual women often avoid routine health exams. They sometimes even delay seeking health care when feeling sick. It is important to be proactive about your health, even if you have to try different doctors before you find the right one. Early detection — such as finding cancer early before it spreads — gives you the best chance to do something about it. That's one example of why it’s important to find a doctor who will work with you to identify your health concerns and make a plan to address them.
Heart Disease. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all women. The more risk factors you have, the greater the chance that you will develop heart disease. There are some risk factors that you cannot control, such as age, family health history, and race. But you can protect yourself from heart disease by not smoking, controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, exercising, and eating well. These things also help prevent type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of heart disease. Lesbians and bisexual women have a higher rate of obesity, smoking, and stress. All of these are risk factors for heart disease. As such, lesbians and bisexual women should talk with their doctors about how to prevent heart disease.
Cancer. The most common cancers for all women are breast, lung, colon, uterine, and ovarian. Several factors put lesbian and bisexual women at higher risk for developing some cancers. Remember:
Depression and Anxiety. Many factors cause depression and anxiety among all women. However, lesbian and bisexual women report higher rates of depression and anxiety than other women do. Bisexual women are even more likely than lesbians to have had a mood or anxiety disorder. Depression and anxiety in lesbian and bisexual women may be due to:
Lesbians and bisexuals often feel they have to hide their sexual orientation from family, friends, and employers. Bisexual women may feel even more alone because they don't feel included in either the heterosexual community or the gay and lesbian community. Lesbians and bisexuals can also be victims of hate crimes and violence. Discrimination against these groups does exist, and can lead to depression and anxiety. Women can reach out to their doctors, mental health professionals, and area support groups for help dealing with depression or anxiety. These conditions are treatable, and with help, women can overcome them.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. PCOS is the most common hormonal problem of the reproductive system in women of childbearing age. PCOS is a health problem that can affect a woman's:
Five to 10 percent of women of childbearing age have PCOS. Lesbians may have a higher rate of PCOS than heterosexual women.
Women who have sex with women are at risk for STIs. Lesbian and bisexual women can transmit STIs to each other through:
Some STIs are more common among lesbians and bisexual women and may be passed easily from woman to woman (such as bacterial vaginosis). Other STIs are much less likely to be passed from woman to woman through sex (such as HIV). When lesbians get these less common STIs, it may be because they also have had sex with men, especially when they were younger. It is also important to remember that some of the less common STIs may not be passed between women during sex, but through sharing needles used to inject drugs. Bisexual women may be more likely to get infected with STIs that are less common for lesbians, since bisexuals have typically had sex with men in the past or are presently having sex with a man.
Common STIs that can be passed between women include:
Both men and women can spread the virus to others whether or not they have any symptoms. Lesbians and bisexual women can transmit HPV through direct genital skin-to-skin contact, touching, or sex toys used with other women. Lesbians who have had sex with men are also at risk of HPV infection. This is why regular Pap tests are just as important for lesbian and bisexual women as they are for heterosexual women.
There is no treatment for HPV, but a healthy immune (body defense) system can usually fight off HPV infection. Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) can protect girls and young women against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. The vaccines work best when given before a person's first sexual contact, when she could be exposed to HPV. Both vaccines are recommended for 11 and 12-year-old-girls. But the vaccines also can be used in girls as young as 9 and in women through age 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. These vaccines are given in a series of 3 shots. It is best to use the same vaccine brand for all 3 doses. Ask your doctor which brand vaccine is best for you. Gardasil also has benefits for men in preventing genital warts and anal cancer caused by HPV. It is approved for use in boys as young as 9 and for young men through age 26. The vaccine does not replace the need to wear condoms to lower your risk of getting other types of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections. If you do get HPV, there are treatments for diseases caused by it. Genital warts can be removed with medicine you apply yourself or treatments performed by your doctor. Cervical and other cancers caused by HPV are most treatable when found early. There are many options for cancer treatment.
Trichomoniasis can be treated with antibiotics.
Remember: Even if you have a “mini-stroke,” you may have some of these signs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Phone: 1-800-232-4636 (TDD: 1-888-232-6348)
Office on Violence Against Women, DOJ
Phone: (202)307-6026 (TDD: 202-307-2277)
Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA)
Phone: (202)600-8037 or (415)255-4547
American Psychological Association
Phone: 1-800-374-2721 or (202)336-5500 (TDD: 202-336-6123)
Lesbian Health and Research Center
The Mautner Project
Phone: Phone: 866-628-8637 or (202)332-5536
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, AOA, HHS