For some of us, sex is a super important part of our lives, contributing to fulfilling relationships, life satisfaction, and overall happiness. For others, sex is no big deal—simply a way of satisfying an urge, if you do it at all. Regardless of where you stand, it’s impossible to ignore that sex can be a big contributing factor for UTIs, BV, and yeast infections. Most people with vaginas who participate in sex will experience at least one of these issues at some point in their lives and many will go on to experience recurrent symptoms as a result of sex. Understanding how sex can impact your vaginal pH and vaginal environment can be an important part of breaking your cycle of infections and preventing problems before they begin.
What is normal vaginal pH?
The pH scale is a measurement between 0.0 and 14.0 that measures how acidic a solution is—fluids with a pH below 7.0 are considered acidic, while anything above 7.0 is considered basic (7.0 is perfectly neutral). For reference, drinking water has a pH between 6.5-8.5. While there is variation based on every individual body, a healthy vagina typically sits between 3.8 and 4.5—this moderate acidity is the result of helpful microbes in your vagina that help fend off infection! Acidity limits harmful bacteria’s ability to grow. Changes in environment, lifestyle, or medication have a big influence on your pH, so a new sexual partner, body wash, or antibiotic can easily interfere with your microbiome and cause problems. When this occurs, it’s much easier for infections like bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections to take hold.
How can sex change your vaginal health?
There are a few different ways that sex can interfere with your vaginal environment and change your natural pH balance.
Penetrative (Penis-in-Vagina) Sex
- The pH of semen can affect the pH of your vagina. Did you know that the pH of semen is slightly basic? Remember that the vagina and vaginal fluids are slightly acidic to help reduce the growth of harmful bacteria—this acidity can also harm sperm traveling through the vaginal canal. Seminal fluid that surrounds sperm is basic to help protect the sperm from this acidity. However, that means that it can raise the pH of your vaginal environment and lead to an overgrowth of the microbes that cause BV or yeast infections. You can prevent this interference by using condoms (which also protect you against STIs and pregnancy) or by pulling out before ejaculation.
- Penises can introduce new bacteria into your vagina. Sex is a messy business! The bacteria and viruses that cause STIs aren’t the only germs you may be exposed to during sex. If your partner happens to have some microbes that don’t play well with yours, they may be able to grow out of control and release byproducts that interfere with your pH. It’s impossible to know if you and your partner’s microbes are compatible in advance, but if you find yourself experiencing recurrent BV with a new partner, this may be why. Condoms can sometimes help reduce the exchange of these microbes and you can try regular holistic prevention, like Boric Acid, to maintain a healthy vaginal environment.
- Anal sex can introduce UTI-causing bacteria. While often thought of as racy and taboo, the reality is 35.9% of women and 42.3% of men have ever had anal sex (according to the CDC)—that’s a lot of people coming in through the backdoor! If anal sex is something you’re interested in trying for the first time, it’s important to know how it may affect other parts of your body. The E. coli bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract cause up to 90% of all UTIs and being the receptive partner in anal sex is a good way to introduce E. coli into your vagina and urethra. If you’re prone to UTIs, you may want to stay away from butt stuff altogether, but if it’s something you really want to try, be sure to prepare appropriately. Shower before and after while cleansing genital areas thoroughly with a wash that’s safe for sensitive areas (our Balancing Wash is a great option 😉) to keep things hygienic. You may also consider using an anal douche to flush stray fecal matter from your rectum before penetration (but refrain from using vaginal douches which can lead to vaginal infections). Most importantly, never transition from anal sex to vaginal sex without cleansing yourself and your partner, or replacing the condom, in between acts—this is a surefire way to introduce harmful bacteria into your vagina and urethra.
- The microbes in saliva are different from the microbes in your vagina. Body fluids are body fluids, right? Not so much! Not only can skin-to-skin contact between mouths and genitals transmit infections like herpes, the microbes and enzymes in saliva can also disrupt your vaginal pH and lead to BV or a yeast infection (this applied to using saliva as a lubricant during penetrative sex, too!). Using a latex dental dam during oral sex will help keep oral microbes out of your vagina, and help prevent the transmission of STIs!
How can I have sex and keep my vagina healthy?
It may feel like no matter where you turn, there’s something waiting to throw your vagina off its game. All kinds of sex carry some risk and it’s up to you to decide what kinds of risks feel ok for you, while taking steps to protect yourself! Here are a few things you can do to prevent infections and keep your vagina healthy:
- Use latex or polyurethane condoms consistently. Putting a barrier between yourself and your partner’s skin and bodily fluids greatly reduces your risk of STIs and pregnancy. Use them every time you have sex to get the best protection you can!
- Clean up before and after sex. The areas involved in sex are often moist, sweaty, and dark—all factors that contribute to the growth of bacteria. Shower with your partner or use personal wipes to clean up before and after getting down. And don’t forget to wash your hands!
- Make yourself your best sex partner. The safest kind of sex is masturbation! You don’t have to worry about STIs, your partner’s microbes, or preventing pregnancy. Just make sure any toys you use are clean and safe to use in and around your body.
- Focus on prevention and holistic care. If you deal with recurrent vaginal symptoms, your body may need a little extra support to stay balanced. Boric Acid suppositories, Probiotics, and D-Mannose are all over-the-counter options backed by science to help support vaginal health. Working one or more into your regular health routine may help you stop infections before they start.
Interested in more sexual health knowledge? Give us a follow on IG @hellowisp for tips and tricks, inclusive sex ed, and the occasional meme ❤️
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