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Happy Veteran’s Day!

Today, we’d like to highlight an important women’s health issue for females serving in the military- a higher risk of developing both vaginal and urinary tract infections while deployed.

Females in the Military

According to the Defense Department, women now make up 20 percent of the Air Force, 19 percent of the Navy, 15 percent of the Army and almost 9 percent of the Marine Corps. As such a large population, increased awareness and advocacy is needed to ensure that our female troops are getting the best medical care as possible.

Vaginal and Urinary Tract Infection Affects Quality of Life

If you’ve ever had a vaginal or urinary tract infection, you’ll know that the symptoms can be miserable and affect one’s quality of life, ability to concentrate, and their general comfort. If left untreated, vaginal and urinary tract infections can contribute to long-term negative effects on gynecologic and urologic health, including pelvic floor health.

Vaginal Infection

30.1% of surveyed females in the Army and Navy experienced vaginal infections while on active duty (Lowe, 2003). Symptoms experienced included vaginal itching, heavier than usual vaginal discharge, and thick white or thin grayish vaginal discharge. These symptoms are commonly associated with three common vaginal infections (candida, bacterial, and trichomonas vaginitis).

Urinary Tract Infection

18.4% of surveyed females in the Army and Navy reported having urinary tract infections while on active duty (Lowe, 2003). Symptoms experienced included urinary frequency, urgency and pain during urination.

Behaviors to avoid while on duty

The 2003 Lowe study listed several behaviors that women on active duty engage in that increase risk of infection. If at all possible, avoid the following behaviors while on duty:

  • Holding urine:  Urinate every 2-4 hours
  • Avoiding liquids: Drink 64 oz of water a day
  • Keeping tampons in too long: Change tampons every 4-6 hours
  • Wearing nylon/latex undergarments: Wear breathable cotton underwear when possible
  • Using feminine hygiene sprays and douching: Avoid using scented items on your vulva, and your vagina is a "self cleaning oven"- you do not need to use douches to clean internally. 

Other Factors That Increase Risk 

Lowe (2003) also listed the following environmental/situational factors that can contribute to increased risk of infection:

  • Unavailable or inadequate health care resources on the field
  • No laundry facilities: Try to keep underwear clean by changing daily and washing as frequently as possible
  • Limited or no hand washing facilities
  • Increased stress: Practice deep breathing and other stress reduction methods whenever possible
  • Not enough sleep: Prioritize catching up on rest when possible
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Taking antibiotics
  • Taking birth control pills
  • Having sexual intercourse: Make sure you urinate after having sex

What You Can Do Before Deployment

  • Be aware of behaviors and environmental facts that increase risk of infection
  • Educate service members and leaders about hygiene in the field
  • Put together a self-care kit with hygiene and treatment products
    • Hand soap
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Unscented baby wipes
    • Laundry soap
    • Cotton underwear
    • Yeast infection suppository or cream for self treatment
    • UTI treatment/prevention items like cranberry pills and probiotics- consult with a doctor before you go to determine which supplements are appropriate

It’s important for us to take care of our pelvic health, especially for females on active duty. 

Resources

Lowe NK, Ryan-Wenger NA: Military women's risk factors for and symptoms of genitourinary infections during deployment. Mil Med 168(7):569, 2003.

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