This week we are answering questions about taking care of down there. Read on for responses to our biggest FAQs!
How do I keep my vagina clean?
Short answer: you let it do its thing. Your vagina is a self-cleaning organ. All you really need to keep it clean is warm water. It is a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, harsh chemicals, and prepackaged wipes as these can actually irritate your vagina. If you must, it is okay to use gentle, unperfumed soap on the outside of your vagina, but you should not insert any products into your vaginal canal.
Is my discharge normal?
White or clear discharge is totally normal. During your menstrual cycle, hormonal changes may impact how much discharge your vagina produces, so do not be alarmed if the amount changes throughout your cycle. Taking hormonal birth control can also have an impact on this.
If you are pregnant, your vaginal discharge may increase and have a slight smell. This is fine so long as it is not an odd color like green or yellow, and the smell is not bad or fishy.
If your discharge changes color, smells bad, or is the consistency of cottage cheese, this could be an indication of a vaginal infection, and you should touch base with your doctor or healthcare professional.
What are the signs of a vaginal infection?
Vaginal infections are very common. If you’re experiencing discomfort in your nether regions, this might be why. Some common symptoms of a vaginal infection to look out for are:
- Pain during sex
- Burning sensation
- Pain when urinating
- Discharge that smells odd or resembles cottage cheese
While these signs are common, different bodies experience them in different ways, so you may experience different combinations of symptoms depending on what is going on. Also, experiencing these symptoms does not always mean that the source of your issue is a vaginal infection. For example, pain during sex can also be a symptom of endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or menopause.
If this is your first time experiencing these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor before taking further action. If you have been diagnosed with vaginal infections like a yeast infection before, and your symptoms are similar, you can go ahead and try over-the-counter medication.
What’s the best way to keep my vagina healthy?
The best way to keep your vagina healthy is to keep your whole body healthy. A key piece of this is making sure you have a balanced diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens and protein. Studies show that diet composition can contribute to imbalances in your vaginal flora. For example, in some cases dairy consumption is linked to higher rates of bacterial vaginosis, a vaginal inflammation caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina.
It’s a good idea to touch base with your healthcare provider about your diet, to make sure you are getting what your body needs.
Just like your gut, the overall health of your vagina relies on a healthy balance of vaginal bacteria, also known as flora. These bacteria help prevent infection and protect the healthy functioning of everything down there. Your vaginal flora fluctuate during your menstrual cycle, but the best way to make sure everything is functioning as it should is to take a probiotic regularly.
Probiotics help to moderate your vagina’s pH level, which staves off infections and UTIs (For more on vaginal pH, click here!). We say this all the time, probiotics are so important for your whole body, not just your gut! For more details on how probiotics support vaginal health, check out this article.
3. Regular Screenings
When caring for your vagina, your healthcare professional is going to be an important point of contact. When you go in for your yearly checkup, your doctor can screen for vaginal and vulvar cancers, as well as administer Pap smears to test for cervical cancer. These tests look for cell changes caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which are abnormal precancer cells that can lead to cervical cancer.
Experts recommend that if you are 21 to 29, you get a Pap test every 3 years. For women who are 30-65, you should get either a Pap test every three years and an HPV test every 5 years, or a co-test for the two every five years. For those older than 65, you should communicate with your doctor about when you can stop going in for Pap and HPV tests.
It’s important to pay attention to your body and your body’s “normal”. If you notice something is up, or there is something about your body that doesn’t feel right, you should contact your doctor right away and explain what you are feeling.
4. Safe Sex
Studies indicate that sexual activity can influence the microbiota of your vagina. If you are sexually active, it is important to be using a condom with your sexual partner. Not only do condoms protect you from STDs, but they can also help mitigate the effects of intercourse on your vagina’s flora.
How to avoid vaginal infections
Vaginal infections occur when bacteria grow uncontrolled, which usually means your natural vaginal flora has been upset in some way. Everyone’s body is different, and some women are more prone to vaginal infection than others, but here are a few ways to keep your vagina and vulva healthy:
First, keep your vulva dry.
Vaginal infections can develop faster when your genital area is moist, so try to keep it as dry as possible. You can do this by:
- Wearing 100% cotton underwear -- this allows your vagina to breathe and prevents moisture from building
- Change your underwear daily
- After you workout or get sweaty, change out of your underwear and leggings right away
- Avoid sitting around in wet bathing suits
- Avoid wearing pants that are uncomfortably tight
Second, avoid chemical irritants.
Like your gut, your vagina contains a carefully balanced vaginal ecosystem. Upsetting this balance is often the source of vaginal infections. Make sure to:
- Avoid perfumed bath products
- Avoid scented tampons and pads
- Avoid scented vaginal deodorant products -- ask your doctor if your vaginal smell is normal or not
- Only wash your genital area with mild soap or plain water
Third, get to know your vagina.
Every woman’s body is different, so it is important to pay attention to how your vagina’s smell and discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle. Knowing your body well is the best way to identify if something is off, or not quite normal, so you can get treatment as quickly as possible if you do end up needing it.
How does my vaginal health change as I age?
During perimenopause and menopause, you may notice changes in your vagina. As your estrogen levels start to decrease, your vaginal walls will become thinner and drier, and you may notice more burning, redness, painful sex, discharge, or burning during urination. This is part of a phenomenon called vaginal atrophy.
Luckily, this condition can be treated with over the counter vaginal moisturizers or lubricants. If these do not work, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor. He or she may recommend you start taking an estrogen supplement. Regular sex can also help, increasing blood flow and keep your vagina elastic.
Low estrogen can also change the acidity of your vagina, which may increase your susceptibility to infection, especially UTIs. You can prevent this by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing your caffeine intake, cutting out nicotine products, doing Kegel exercises, and using vaginal lubricants and moisturizers. Remember to pee immediately after having sex, and if your urinary symptoms continue to bother you, check in with your doctor about other treatment options.
As always, we are here to answer any and all of your questions about women’s health. Reach out to one of our trained healthcare professionals in the chat to connect now!