Women’s health 2016: An update for internists

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ABSTRACTInternists are called upon on a daily basis to address a range of women’s health issues. Staying up to date with the evidence in this wide field can be challenging. This article reviews important studies published in 2015 and early 2016 pertinent to urinary tract infection, osteoporosis, ovarian cancer screening, and contraception.


  • Many women with mild uncomplicated urinary tract infections can avoid taking antibiotics and instead receive treatment for symptoms alone.
  • The American Society for Bone and Mineral Research now recommends reassessing the risk of osteoporotic fracture after 3 to 5 years of bisphosphonate therapy. Women at high risk may benefit from extending bisphosphonate therapy to 10 years.
  • Current evidence shows no clear benefit of ovarian cancer screening for women at average risk, and we should not recommend yearly ultrasonography or cancer antigen 125 level testing, either of which is likely to cause harm without providing benefit.
  • A large observational study found death rates were lower in parous than in nulliparous women, in women who had breastfed than in those who had never breastfed, and in nonsmokers who had used oral contraceptives.
  • Intrauterine contraception and subdermal implants are safe and are the most effective contraceptive options.



Women's health encompasses a variety of topics relevant to the daily practice of internists. Staying up to date with the evidence in this wide field is a challenge.

This article reviews important studies published in 2015 and early 2016 on treatment of urinary tract infections, the optimal duration of bisphosphonate use, ovarian cancer screening, the impact of oral contraceptives and lactation on mortality rates, and the risks and benefits of intrauterine contraception. We critically appraised the studies and judged that their methodology was strong and appropriate for inclusion in this review.


A 36-year-old woman reports 4 days of mild to moderate dysuria, frequency, and urgency. She denies fever, nausea, or back pain. Her last urinary tract infection was 2 years ago. Office urinalysis reveals leukocyte esterase and nitrites. She has read an article about antibiotic resistance and Clostridium difficile infection and asks you if antibiotics are truly necessary. What do you recommend?

Urinary tract infections are often self-limited

Uncomplicated urinary tract infections account for 25% of antibiotic prescriptions in primary care.1

Several small studies have suggested that many of these infections are self-limited, resolving within 3 to 14 days without antibiotics (Table 1).2–6 A potential disadvantage of withholding treatment is slower bacterial clearance and resolution of symptoms, but reducing the number of antibiotic prescriptions may help slow antibiotic resistance.7,8 Surveys and qualitative studies have suggested that women are concerned about the harms of antibiotic treatment and so may be willing to avoid or postpone antibiotic use.9–11

Ibuprofen vs fosfomycin

Gágyor et al6 conducted a double-blind, randomized multicenter trial in 42 general practices in Germany to assess whether treating the symptoms of uncomplicated urinary tract infection with ibuprofen would reduce antibiotic use without worsening outcomes.

Of the 779 eligible women with suspected urinary tract infection, 281 declined to participate in the study, 4 did not participate for reasons not specified, 246 received a single dose of fosfomycin 3 g, and 248 were treated with ibuprofen 400 mg three times a day for 3 days. Participants scored their daily symptoms and activity impairment, and safety data were collected for adverse events and relapses up to day 28 and within 6 and 12 months. In both groups, if symptoms worsened or persisted, antibiotic therapy was initiated at the discretion of the treating physician.

Exclusion criteria included fever, “loin” (back) tenderness, pregnancy, renal disease, a previous urinary tract infection within 2 weeks, urinary catheterization, and a contraindication to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Results. Within 28 days of symptom onset, women in the ibuprofen group had received 81 courses of antibiotics for symptoms of urinary tract infection (plus another 13 courses for other reasons), compared with 277 courses for urinary tract infection in the fosfomycin group (plus 6 courses for other reasons), for a relative rate reduction in antibiotic use of 66.5% (95% confidence interval [CI] 58.8%–74.4%, P < .001). The women who received ibuprofen were more likely to need antibiotics after initial treatment because of refractory symptoms but were still less likely to receive antibiotics overall (Table 1).

The mean duration of symptoms was slightly shorter in the fosfomycin group (4.6 vs 5.6 days, P < .001). However, the percentage of patients who had a recurrent urinary tract infection within 2 to 4 weeks was higher in the fosfomycin-treated patients (11% vs 6% P = .049).

Although the study was not powered to show significant differences in pyelonephritis, five patients in the ibuprofen group developed pyelonephritis compared with one in the antibiotic-treated group (P = .12).

An important limitation of the study was that nonparticipants had higher symptom scores, which may mean that the results are not generalizable to women who have recurrent urinary tract infections, longer duration of symptoms, or symptoms that are more severe. The strengths of the study were that more than half of all potentially eligible women were enrolled, and baseline data were collected from nonparticipants.

Can our patient avoid antibiotics?

Given the mild nature of her symptoms, the clinician should discuss with her the risks vs benefits of delaying antibiotics, once it has been determined that she has no risk factors for severe urinary tract infection. Her symptoms are likely to resolve within 1 week even if she declines antibiotic treatment, though they may last a day longer with ibuprofen alone than if she had received antibiotics. She should watch for symptoms of pyelonephritis (eg, flank pain, fever, chills, vomiting) and should seek prompt medical care if such symptoms occur.


A 64-year-old woman has taken alendronate for her osteoporosis for 5 years. She has no history of fractures. Her original bone density scans showed a T-score of –2.6 at the spine and –1.5 at the hip. Since she started to take alendronate, there has been no further loss in bone mineral density. She is tolerating the drug well and does not take any other medications. Should she continue the bisphosphonate?

Optimal duration of therapy unknown

The risks and benefits of long-term bisphosphonate use are debated.

In the Fracture Intervention Trial (FIT),12 women with low bone mineral density of the femoral neck were randomized to receive alendronate or placebo and were followed for 36 months. The alendronate group had significantly fewer vertebral fractures and clinical fractures overall. Then, in the FIT Long-term Extension (FLEX) study,13 1,009 alendronate-treated women in the FIT study were rerandomized to receive 5 years of additional treatment or to stop treatment. Bone density in the untreated women decreased, although not to the level it was before treatment. At the end of the study, there was no difference in hip fracture rate between the two groups (3% of each group had had a hip fracture), although women in the treated group had a lower rate of clinical vertebral fracture (2% vs 5%, relative risk 0.5, 95% CI 0.2–0.8).

In addition, rare but serious risks have been associated with bisphosphonate use, specifically atypical femoral fracture and osteonecrosis of the jaw. A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluation of long-term bisphosphonate use concluded that there was evidence of an increased risk of osteonecrosis of the jaw with longer duration of use, but causality was not established. The evaluation also noted conflicting results about the association with atypical femoral fracture.14

Based on this report and focusing on the absence of nonspine benefit after 5 years, the FDA suggested that bisphosphonates may be safely discontinued in some patients without compromising therapeutic gains, but no adequate clinical trial has yet delineated how long the benefits of treatment are maintained after cessation. A periodic reevaluation of continued need was recommended.14

New recommendations from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research

Age is the greatest risk factor for fracture.15 Therefore, deciding whether to discontinue a bisphosphonate when a woman is older, and hence at higher risk, is a challenge.

A task force of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR) has developed an evidence-based guideline on managing osteoporosis in patients on long-term bisphosphonate treatment.16 The goal was to provide guidance on the duration of bisphosphonate therapy from the perspective of risk vs benefit. The authors conducted a systematic review focusing on two randomized controlled trials (FLEX13 and the Health Outcomes and Reduced Incidence With Zoledronic Acid Once Yearly Pivotal Fracture Trial17) that provided data on long-term bisphosphonate use.

The task force recommended16 that after 5 years of oral bisphosphonates or 3 years of intravenous bisphosphonates, risk should be reassessed. In women at high fracture risk, they recommended continuing the oral bisphosphonate for 10 years or the intravenous bisphosphonate for 6 years. Factors that favored continuation of bisphosphonate therapy were as follows:

  • An osteoporotic fracture before or during therapy
  • A hip bone mineral density T-score ≤ –2.5
  • High risk of fracture, defined as age older than 70 or 75, other strong risk factors for fracture, or a FRAX fracture risk score18 above a country-specific threshold.

(The FRAX score is based on age, sex, weight, height, previous fracture, hip fracture in a parent, current smoking, use of glucocorticoids, rheumatoid arthritis, secondary osteoporosis, alcohol use, and bone mineral density in the femoral neck. It gives an estimate of the 10-year risk of major osteoporotic fracture and hip fracture. High risk would be a 10-year risk of major osteoporotic fracture greater than 20% or a 10-year risk of hip fracture greater than 3%.)

For women at high risk, the risks of atypical femoral fracture and osteonecrosis of the jaw are outweighed by the benefit of a reduction in vertebral fracture risk. For women not at high risk of fracture, a drug holiday of 2 to 3 years can be considered after 3 to 5 years of treatment.

Although the task force recommended reassessment after 2 to 3 years of drug holiday, how best to do this is not clear. The task force did not recommend a specific approach to reassessment, so decisions about when to restart therapy after a drug holiday could potentially be informed by subsequent bone mineral density testing if it were to show persistent bone loss. Another option could be to restart bisphosphonates after a defined amount of time (eg, 3–5 years) for women who have previously experienced benefit.

The task force recommendations are in line with those of other societies, the FDA, and expert opinion.19–23

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommends considering a drug holiday in low-risk patients after 4 to 5 years of treatment. For high-risk patients, they recommend 1 to 2 years of drug holiday after 10 years of treatment. They encourage restarting treatment if bone mineral density decreases, bone turnover markers rise, or fracture occurs.19 This is a grade C recommendation, meaning the advice is based on descriptive studies and expert opinion.

Although some clinicians restart bisphosphonates when markers of bone turnover such as NTX (N-telopeptide of type 1 collagen) rise to premenopausal levels, there is no evidence to support this strategy.24

The task force recommendations are based on limited evidence that primarily comes from white postmenopausal women. Another important limitation is that the outcomes are primarily vertebral fractures. However, until additional evidence is available, these guidelines can be useful in guiding decision-making.

Should our patient continue therapy?

Our patient is relatively young and does not have any of the high-risk features noted within the task force recommendations. She has responded well to bisphosphonate treatment and so can consider a drug holiday at this time.

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