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Physical health conditions

Although the years 10-24 tend to be a time of good physical health, many young people will experience a range of short term physical health problems.  A significant minority will have long-term chronic conditions or some kind of disability.

Young people aged 16-20 are the group most likely to  be diagnosed with asthma

In this section we present data on some of the common and long-term physical health problems that young people experience during the 10-24 age period.  We also look at the prevalence of disability and Covid-19 data specifically in relation to this age group.


Common physical health problems

Headaches, abdominal pain, muscular skeletal disorders, allergies, skin disorders and acne, coughs and respiratory infections are some of the common physical health problems for which young people seek medical advice.  Young people are more frequent users of primary care services than is often thought. However there are no up to date robust prevalence data on the regular short term health problems of this age group. The topic has not been covered in the Health Survey for England (HSE) since 2002, and there have been no large scale studies of why young people in particular present at general practice since Churchill et al (2000).

Research on individual topics such as headaches (Nieswand et al et al, 2020) and skin conditions (Scholfield et al, 2009; Scholfield et al, 2011) suggest these may be very common in this age group. Prevalence of acne, which usually starts in puberty, has been estimated at between 50% of 14-16 year olds (Smithard et al, 2001) to 80% of all those aged 12-24 (Lynn et al, 2016).  A systematic review of epidemiological studies concluded that moderate-to-severe acne affects around 20% of young people, and that acne persists into the 20s in around two thirds of individuals (Bhate and Williams, 2012).  More UK data on young people’s routine health concerns are urgently required for planning services and training GPs and other primary care professionals.

Among 16-24 year olds in England, 20% of young women and 11% of young men report chronic pain Experience of chronic pain (usually defined as lasting for approximately 3 months or more, or recurring in episodes over months and years) has been reported to be prevalent in significant proportions of adolescents, although estimates vary widely from 20% to 60% (Howard, 2011).  Adolescent pain includes chronic headaches or migraines, fibromyalgia, regional pain syndromes, and irritable bowel syndrome.  The 2017 Health Survey for England reported that among 16-24 year olds, 20% of young women and 11% of young men reported chronic pain, and also noted that chronic pain was more prevalent among lower income groups (NHS Digital, 2018; Public Health England 2020).

Pain and complications from menstruation have not received much attention in the main UK health surveys of our age group.  Estimates of the prevalence of menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea) vary, but can be as high as 8 out of 10 young women.  In one study of 500 university students in Italy, 84% reported pain, with a quarter experiencing a combination of pain, the need for medication and absenteeism from study (Grandi et al, 2012).  Yet many girls and women never go to the doctor for help and advice regarding period pain or other gynaecological symptoms, due to shame or fear of being dismissed (Plan International UK, 2018).  In addition, period poverty in the UK is an issue that has received more attention recently.  Plan International UK’s survey on menstruation (2018) found that one in 10 (10 per cent) of girls have been unable to afford sanitary products.

All data correct as of 1st November 2021