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October 2, 2019 • read
Vaginal health 101: what’s really going on “down there”?
Our bodies are designed to keep themselves healthy (for the most part). When we eat well, get enough exercise and sleep, and limit our alcohol intake, we’re helping our bodies function at their best. So when our bodies are out of whack, we can usually tell. But, when it comes to your vagina’s health, it can be a little more mystifying. Plus, because we don’t talk about it enough, it can sometimes be hard to know what’s normal and what’s not. So how can you really tell if your vagina is healthy?
Wait, that isn’t my vagina?
Yep, you’ve been lied to: your vagina is actually inside your body. The labia, urethra, and clitoris are often referred to as part of the vagina, but they’re actually part of the vulva. The vagina is basically a tube that runs between your vulva (the outside of your body) and your cervix.
How do I know if my vagina is healthy?
Because the vagina is internal, we can’t really look at it and assess its health. This means we have to rely on other signs to keep tabs on our vaginal health. One big clue is discharge, which all vaginas produce. What’s tricky is that healthy discharge doesn’t have one appearance: it changes throughout the menstrual cycle. It can range from clear and slippery (sort of like an egg white) to white and creamy during a normal cycle. But discharge can also signal that something more is going on: it may have a strong odour or a different colour or consistency than you’re used to. Because most girls aren’t taught about vaginal discharge, it’s easy to mistake normal cyclical variations for something else — a yeast infection, for example. And pregnant women typically produce more discharge (it’s often one of the first signs of pregnancy). If you do notice your discharge changing, it’s crucial that you see a healthcare provider to confirm symptoms.
How can I tell if something’s wrong with my vagina?
Pay attention to any abnormal changes in your vagina. Itchiness, for example, is a sign that all is not right — a healthy vagina should not be itchy. Vaginal itching could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Vaginal pain, whether or not it occurs during sex, is never normal and should always be checked. And finally, of course, it comes back to discharge: if you notice that your discharge is lumpy (like cottage cheese), green, yellow, or another colour, these can all be indications that something is going on.
Vaginal health tests
Because certain conditions can be quite similar, vaginal health home testing kits have come onto the market in the last few years. These tests are calibrated to measure pH levels in the vagina. The vagina maintains a slightly acidic pH level in order to keep bacteria in check, and its pH doesn’t usually change when you have a yeast infection, for instance. So if you notice signs of a yeast infection, but the pH level is lower than it should be, it could be an indication that you are suffering from bacterial vaginosis (BV) or another kind of infection. This isn’t always the case, however, as the presence of semen or blood, and the hormonal changes of menopause can all affect vaginal pH levels, so it’s always good to get clinical confirmation.
Most home health tests can’t definitively tell you what kind of infection you have. The best they can do is confirm your pH level. If the pH level is normal and you’ve previously had a yeast infection and recognize the symptoms, then you can go ahead and treat yourself with an over the counter (OTC) medication. But if the test comes back abnormal, you’ll need to speak with a doctor to confirm a diagnosis.
Yeast infections have come up a few times already, but it’s because they’re one of the most common vaginal health issues. Most women — about 75 percent — will have a yeast infection at some point in their life. Most women are familiar with the symptoms: vaginal itching and discomfort, cottage cheese-like discharge, and pain during sex or urination. But yeast infections don’t always manifest with these exact symptoms. This can sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis when self-treating. If you find yourself experiencing multiple, recurrent yeast infections a year, speak with a doctor. There could be an underlying cause you’re missing, or you may have misdiagnosed yourself.
How can I keep my vagina healthy?
Follow these tips to keep your vagina healthy:
- Don’t douche — it can upset the normal pH balance of your vagina. There’s also no need as vaginas are self-cleaning.
- Wear cotton underwear — synthetic fabrics don’t breathe well and air will help your vagina maintain its balance.
- Avoid wearing very tight pants.
- Wipe front to back. Wiping the other way can introduce harmful anal bacteria into your vagina.
- Use condoms during sex to limit your exposure to STIs.
- Change out of wet clothes or bathing suits as soon as possible.
Basic hygiene and self-care are typically enough to keep your vagina healthy on a day-to-day basis. In addition, make sure to get regular Pap tests, and use condoms each and every time you have sex with new partners unless you are monogamous and know their health status. STIs and BV can cause serious complications if left untreated, including reduced fertility. For pregnant women, there is also a risk of premature labour or low fetal birth weight (among other things). While you might feel embarrassed to talk about vaginal health, ignoring potential issues won’t make them go away. Taking a minute to speak to your doctor about any concerns can make all the difference.