area of focus:
Adolescent & TEENAGE HEALTH
What you should know about health for children and teenagers
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The content on our website is for information purposes only. We do not provide medical advice. We provide general information and therefore it is advised that you speak with your health care provider or GP about your health and any medication you may be taking. We do not advise that you stop taking or change any medication prescribed by your doctor.
Teenage Health – Dr Amanda Chisholm
Right now life may seem quite daunting – it’s a big transition from a child to a young adult. You’re developing your own opinions, desires, goals and voice! There is a lot going on from new relationships, new challenges at school, bigger responsibilities, more independence not to mention changes to your body. So with all that you might think ‘I don’t have time to worry about my health; plus, I’m young and fit and have plenty of time!’.
Well the fact is it is too important to leave until you’re older! A sixth of the world’s population are aged 10-19 and that is a massive portion of our world! Teenage or adolescent health is a completely unique entity just like each of you are – it can’t be bundled in with child or adult health, although it unfortunately often is.
How you look after your mind and body now will impact not only the way you feel now but also the rest of your adult life, and how fulfilling you will find life!
On this page we will explore two main issues affecting teenage health today: mental health and sexual activity including safe sex and pregnancy. We will also touch on the impact of alcohol and finally give you some tips on how to start the conversation with your doctor about your overall health.
The aim of this page is to empower and equip you young women to become educated on your body, make informed decisions and live your best life.
Mental health conditions make up 16% of all diseases in 10-19 year olds worldwide, and half of all mental health conditions start at the age of 14. It is imperative to promote mental wellbeing in your age group, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in 15-19 year olds and most mental health conditions go undetected and untreated. Not addressing these issues in your early life can have massive ramifications for adulthood, affecting not only mental health but also physical, and can limit future life opportunities.
Firstly, there are ways to care for your mind, promoting wellness and preventing disease from taking hold, here are some steps you can take:
- Learn how to manage stress: unfortunately, it can’t be avoided and you’ll realise this as you get older, it’s inevitable that we will experience stress. If you can figure out now how you best deal with stressful situations this will help you to have more resilience in later life.
- Try to maintain a good relationship with your parents, or at least a responsible adult. A support system is key to mental wellbeing.
- Find a balance between, school, work and social life. It is important to foster quality time in each.
- Limit your responsibilities and activities. Now becoming a young adult; you will be taking on many new responsibilities and independence, and it can be tempting to take on the world, but filling your plate with too much can lead to excessive stress.
- Pay attention to your moods and feelings, don’t ignore them and push them away.
- Accept yourself; much easier said than done, but accepting and being happy with who you are now is a huge positive trait – allowing for self-confidence and self-esteem. Surround yourself with people that accept and love you, and step back from people who do not.
- Ask for help! Use your support system and keep lines of communication open.
- Practice kindness to others.
- Sleep! Most teens need 9 – 9.5 hours a night! So if you need to be up at 7 for school that means bedtime by 10 at the very latest. Sleep allows your mind to consolidate and repair itself.
- Regular exercise – movement releases happy hormones!
Now prevention is so important but for many young people mental health issues have already set in, often from the pressures of modern life or life trauma. These are some of the common mental health conditions and what symptoms are associated with it. IF you are experiencing any of these it is so important to make an appointment with a GP.
- Depression is the leading mental illness. It is a long lasting low mood disorder and affects your ability to do everyday things. Symptoms include longstanding feelings of hopelessness, guilt and sadness, tearfulness and loss of interest in things you used to enjoy. In severe cases people may feel like life is not worth living. Physical symptoms include tiredness, altered sleep patterns, and loss of appetite.
- Anxiety is an emotion all of us will feel at some point along with worry, it is our bodies natural reaction to perceived danger or risk. However, an anxiety disorder develops when continuous feelings of anxiety impact your ability to live everyday life. Symptoms include racing thoughts, uncontrollable over thinking, trouble concentrating, feelings of dread and panic, irritability and heightened alertness. Some people may experience physical symptoms in what we refer to as panic attacks – sweating, fast breathing, heart racing, shaking, dry mouth etc.
- Eating disorders are unhealthy attitudes towards food, which lead to obsession with your eating patterns. This can include eating too much or too little and using what you eat to help manage your emotions. This can lead to serious physical health problems.
- Psychosis is a medical word to describe people who hear, see or believe things that other people do not. Some people may know that what they are experiencing is not real but a lot of people do not have that insight. Psychosis is not a mental health illness but is a sign of mental health problems and important to be aware of.
If you are experiencing any of the above and need to see your doctor it can feel scary and overwhelming. That first appointment with your GP will mostly be led by you. You’ll be given the opportunity to express yourself in your own words, then will be asked more specific questions about your background and symptoms to allow your doctor to gain understanding. Often at the end of that appointment dependent on the urgency, a plan will be made with you. This might include a referral for more help or just mental wellbeing advise, online courses and a follow up appointment. Being given a diagnosis or medication in the first appointment is very unlikely.
UK law states that sexual intercourse is only legal above the age of 16, however we know it is happening younger than this, although in lower numbers than past generations. The National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle reported in 2012 that the average age of first sexual intercourse for 16-24 year olds was 16, however approximately 30% reported having sex before the age of 16. It also found that half of young women wished they had waited longer.
If you are not able to abstain from sex in your teenage years it is so important to do things safely, this is to protect you emotionally, mentally and physically. There is nothing wrong with speaking to someone before you make that big decision and its always right to wait until you feel ready and not when others think you should.
You may hear a lot of people talking about safe sex but what does that really mean? It’s best to look at it in three areas:
- Emotional and mental wellbeing – feeling cared for by your partner, feeling safe and ready to make that decision, and being in a consensual relationship.
- Preventing unwanted/unplanned pregnancies – when engaging in sexual activity contraception is imperative, there are many options to choose from and it is not one size fits all, check out the contraception page on this website or speak to your GP for more information.
- Preventing disease – Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) can be prevented in only two ways; having one partner and being 100% sure that neither one of you have any infections and have not had sex with anyone else. Having this confidence isn’t always easy and the second way is the use of condoms. No other contraception prevents this and condoms when used correctly are 98% effective.
It’s important to have a sexual health screen regularly when sexually active especially when changing partners or not in a committed relationship, it is also important to check your sexual partners STI status as well. You can see here what a sexual health clinic appointment entails https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/visiting-an-sti-clinic/.
Although teenage pregnancy is reducing due to increased safe sex practices and a general reduction in teenagers being sexually active, it is still an important issue to discuss. Whether the pregnancy was planned and wanted or a complete surprise it is a life changing moment for anyone, especially a teenage young woman. You may be experiencing a mix of emotions; excitement, worry and anxiety, not only about pregnancy and child birth but also about the way in which a child will impact your life, and the reactions of people around you.
Pregnancy impacts the teenaged girl in a number of ways and that is why it’s important to address this. For every 1000 pregnant women approx. 17 of those are between the ages of 15 and 17. This group of women are more likely to experience domestic violence, and halted education, also more at risk of pregnancy complications including: pre-eclampsia, infections, low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions. With that said, if you think you are pregnant it is important you take a pregnancy test now, and if positive contact your health care provider to get the best care possible.
I’m pregnant, what next?
There are only three options really but making that decision can be quite complex and difficult for some people. The important thing is to make the decision that is right for you and not to do it alone. There is a lot of support for you as a teenager for whichever choice you make:
- Keep the baby and raise them yourself
- Continue with the pregnancy but put the child up for adoption
- Terminate the pregnancy by having an abortion
In 2014 the Health and Social Care Information Centre report found that at that time 8% of teenagers had drunk alcohol in the last week, and out of those; 22% of them had drunk 15 units or more that week. It also found that girls are more likely to report being drunk than boys. Although teenagers do drink, we can see that your generation is doing this at lower levels than previous generations (38% of children 11-15 have tried alcohol). The way in which alcohol is being consumed is worrying however, more than 13,000 under 18 year olds were admitted to hospital with drink related problems between 2011 and 2014.
If you are a teenager who drinks alcohol you may have a whole host of reasons why you drink, but research has shown peer pressure is a major factor, as well as media exposure to teen drinking. Also going through puberty is a stressful time and sometimes alcohol can be incorrectly used as a temporary distraction.
What does safe drinking look like?
An alcohol free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, the law states that if underage drinking is going to take place, it should not be before 15 years old and should be under the supervision of a parent or carer and should be limited to no more than one day a week. Adults over 18 years old should not exceed more than 14 units (7 pints lager or 9 glasses of a wine) a week.
What happens when I drink too much alcohol?
- Short term – bad breath, bad skin and weight gain
- Lowers inhibitions – this leads to risky, possible life altering decisions
- Alcohol poisoning – a very large amount of alcohol consumed in a short period of time. This is where the alcohol affects the brain causing issues with balance, speech, breathing and maintaining a regular heartbeat and body temperature. It can also switch off the gag reflex and can be fatal.
- Long term – weight loss, disturbed sleep, headaches.
- Brain damage – your teenage years are important for brain development and drinking alcohol can lead to problems with motivation, reasoning and interpersonal skills.
- Alcohol liver disease – sustained excessive alcohol usage can lead to liver damage which is a life threatening illness and more cases are being seen in people in their 20’s.
Obesity and Long Term Health conditions
These are on the rise – the reason for this is mostly due to lifestyle decisions. You can avoid these especially in your teenage years on the most part, by maintaining a healthy varied diet and taking up regular exercise – recommendation for this is an average 60 minutes daily of a variety of activities. Do not skip breakfast, get your seven a day and stay hydrated (more detail found below in the useful resources section).
To really tackle these issues, it needs to be a personalised and specific to you approach. My best advice is to make an appointment to see your GP and ask these questions: Am I at risk for any illness or disease? I’m worried about a specific part of my life: what can I do?
Your doctor may take your height and weight, to talk with you about your day to day habits and activity, ask about your mental health, any new symptoms and family history before making a plan and giving advice specific to you.
Useful resources on mental health
Useful Resources on Sexual Health
Useful Resource on Pregnancy
Useful resources on Alcohol and Drinking
Useful resources on Food, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity
Amanda is an practicing General Practitioner with an interest in lifestyle medicine.