Gynaecological symptoms reported by young women: examining the potential for earlier diagnosis of cervical cancer

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Background. Cervical cancer occurs at a younger age than most adult cancers. A pre-malignant stage can be identified at screening and treated. Screening begins at the age of 25 years in England, so in women younger than this, and in those who decline screening, cervical cancer can only be identified with symptoms.

Aim. To identify the frequency of attendance for gynaecological conditions by young English women.

Design. Historical cohort study using electronic primary care records.

Methods. A cohort of English women aged 15–29 years was prepared from the General Practice Research Database. All gynaecological consultations were identified and collated. Frequencies of gynaecological consultation were analysed in three age bands: 15–19, 20–24 and 25–29 years and by calendar year.

Results. The number of women available for study for each year ranged from 32 968 to 45 807. The percentage of women having any gynaecological consultation increased from 17.7% to 33.3% over the 7 years. If contraception is excluded, the percentages are 11.3% in 2003, rising to 20.1% in 2009. The rise in consultations occurred in all age bands and across most symptom categories. Post-coital bleeding and inter-menstrual bleeding—the two classic presentations of cervical cancer—were reported by 0.5% and 1.6% of women in 2009.

Conclusions. Gynaecological complaints are frequent in primary care, though the symptoms of possible cervical cancer only represent a small minority of the total. Although the chance of cancer in young women with abnormal vaginal bleeding is very small, visualization of the cervix is appropriate.

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