Like any other part of the body, the vagina needs to be kept clean and healthy so that it can function properly. Although the term vagina is used to refer to the whole below-the-belt area, the vagina is actually a closed muscular canal that connects the cervix (opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body.
As a reproductive and sexual organ, the health of the vagina is extremely important for overall good health. Thankfully, the vagina does much of its own work to keep itself healthy. Millions of friendly bacteria within the vagina exist simply to keep the bad bacteria away. These good bacteria also help to regulate the pH of the vagina and allow it to function normally.
Here are a few things to know about keeping your vagina healthy
- Good basic hygiene – use plain soap to wash the genital area around the vagina (the vulva).
- Avoid using perfumed soaps, scented soaps or body washes to wash the vaginal area – these can interfere with the delicate pH balance of the vagina and actually encourage the growth of unwanted bacteria.
- Wipe from front to back – always wipe from front to back after using the washroom.
Common vaginal infections, irritations and what to do about them
The vagina can fall victim to a number of medical conditions. Here are the most common
- Sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) -unprotected sex can result in a STI. Infections such as Chlamydia or Gonorrhea are on the rise. Any infection with a STI can change the environment of the vagina and cause symptoms such as itching, redness or abnormal discharge. Therefore, regular STI testing, especially for those in non-monogamous relationships is a must. Remember, an infection with an STI does not always have obvious symptoms!
- Medical conditions – conditions such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease can also negatively effect the normal functioning of the vagina. The most common symptom of endometriosis is an extremely painful period. Pelvic inflammatory disease is most commonly seen just after a STI infection. Both of these conditions produce symptoms that should be checked out promptly by your doctor.
- Vaginal infections – Yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis are the result of the normal flora of the vagina being disrupted. These are not STI’s. But they should still be diagnosed by your doctor and treated promptly.
- UTI – Although the urinary tract is not technically a part of the vagina, a urinary tract infection can still lead to discomfort in the vaginal area. A simple UTI can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
Other issues that can affect the vagina
- Pregnancy and childbirth – Both pregnancy and childbirth will bring about normal and natural changes to the vagina. This includes changes in discharge or light spotting.
- Hormone levels and menopause – As we age, the amount of estrogen produced by the body begins to decline. Loss of estrogen can cause the lining of the vagina to thin and make sex painful.
What’s normal for the vagina
Because the health of the vagina can be affected by a number of different factors, it’s important to know what’s normal and what’s not.
What is ‘normal’ for the vagina?
Discharge from the vagina is normal. The character and amount of vaginal discharge will change throughout your menstrual cycle but the following characteristics are considered normal.
- Discharge with no distinct odor
- Discharge that is clear or white
- Discharge that is small in amount
What is not ‘normal’?
- Anything that is out of the ordinary for you such as new discharge, itching or pain.
- A change in color or amount of discharge being produced
- A change in the type of discharge being produced such as a clumpy white discharge
- Abnormal smell from the vaginal area
If in doubt, get it checked out! If symptoms appear that you are unsure of, it is better to act on the side of caution. Make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Tips for good vaginal health
- Use condoms – Particularly when you are not in a mutually monogamous relationship. Sex with multiple partners increases the risk of getting a STI.
- Pap-smear testing – Routine pap smear testing can help detect cervical cancer early on. All women over the age of 22 should have regular pap smear testing every 2-3 years.
- Well-woman exams – Make these yearly check-ups a normal part of your healthcare routine. These exams focus solely on your breast and gynecological health.
Vaginal health should not be ignored. Good vaginal health is an important part of your overall well-being. Use some of the tips above to keep the vagina healthy.