What do you know about your vagina? Unfortunately, a lot of us don’t get comprehensive sex education as young people and there are often strong taboos when it comes to open, honest conversations about this body part that half of the world has! We’re covering the vaginal basics that everyone needs to know.
What does a healthy vagina look like?
Health looks different on everyone! The important thing to know is what your normal looks like so you can spot when something feels or looks “off.” A good first step is to get to know your anatomy a little better by using a handheld mirror. Take a look at your vulva and labia (the inner and outer lips around the vaginal opening). They can range in color from pink to brown to black—all these colors are completely healthy and normal! Look for anything on the skin that stands out, like lumps, bumps, rashes, and sores. These may be symptoms you want to ask your doctor about. The better you know your own anatomy, the more quickly you’ll know when something isn’t right and the faster you’ll be able to treat concerns before they become bigger problems.
Did you know only 1 in 4 women know where their vagina is?
The Vaginal Microbiome
Different types of bacterial populations live in your vagina and make up your vaginal microbiome. These bacteria maintain a balance with each other to fight infection and keep your tissue and cells healthy. When this balance is thrown out of whack, it allows infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections to take hold. There are many different factors that can disrupt your vaginal microbiome, including:
- Heavy periods
- Having sex without a condom
- New sexual partners
- Having multiple partners at a time
- Hormonal changes
Any or all of these things can make it a little harder for your vagina to maintain the balance it needs and can trigger unpleasant symptoms like itching, unusual odor, unusual discharge, irritation, and inflammation.
Did you know your vagina is slightly acidic? If you’ve ever noticed bleach stains in your underwear or even holes, it may be because the mildly acidic fluids from your vagina are wearing on the cloth fibers. A healthy vagina typically has a pH of 4.5 or lower (for reference, the pH scale ranges from 0-14 with 0 being as acidic as possible, 7.0 being a perfectly neutral, and 14.0 being completely basic). Your vaginal microbiome helps you maintain the proper pH to fight infection and the acidity even helps ensure only the strongest, healthiest sperm are able to fertilize an egg to create an embryo!
If your pH starts to become more basic, it can affect the smell and even taste of your vagina. If you’ve ever had BV or a yeast infection, you may have noticed a change in your normal smell—your change in pH is a contributing factor. Hormonal changes throughout your menstrual cycle can also affect vaginal pH and lead to changes in odor and sometimes feelings of irritation.
Vaginal discharge is made up of your body's natural water, bacteria, cervical secretions, and skin cells. It doesn't sound that appealing, but it's actually your body's system of self-cleansing. That's right—it's what keeps your vagina clean and healthy! It's normal for your discharge to change depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. You may see cloudy, white discharge or thick discharge right before your period, and you may have a lot more thin, watery discharge around ovulation (usually around 2 weeks before your period starts).
Since vaginal discharge is a sign of vaginal health, it's important to pay attention to it! If you find yourself experiencing a sudden or dramatic change in texture, color, or odor, that may mean something is wrong. White, clumpy discharge is a tell-tale symptom of a yeast infection and thin, greenish-grey discharge often points to bacterial vaginosis or an STI. If you find yourself with discharge like this, or experience other symptoms like itching, pain, or an unusual smell, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor.
What's important to know is there is no "end-all be-all" for what is “normal,” as every woman has something a little different going on down there! Some women have heavy discharge, while others have very light discharge, and both could be considered normal for each individual as long as there are no sudden or unexpected changes in texture or color.
Sometimes it really feels like vagina-owners have gotten the short end of the stick—why do vaginas seem so high-maintenance while penises never seem to have any problems? Unfortunately, it’s just a matter of nature—vaginas are moist spaces where bacteria can thrive. But there are things you can do to prevent infection and get treatment easily when you do come down with symptoms! First, let’s understand some of the most common vaginal concerns.
According to the CDC, bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is the most common vaginal condition for women between the ages of 15 and 44. Bacterial vaginosis is caused by certain bacteria overloading your vagina's natural bacterial balance, causing a strong fishy odor. Though the exact cause for this bacteria overload is still a mystery, bacterial vaginosis usually occurs in people that are sexually active. For most, the fishy odor is the telltale sign of this infection, but it can also be accompanied by other symptoms, like burning or itching.
Wisp offers a number of BV treatment options, including prescription meds and over the counter home remedies, to clear first-time and chronic bacterial vaginosis symptoms. To minimize your chances of dealing with BV, you should:
- Practice safe sex and limit your sexual partners. Bacterial vaginosis isn't a sexually transmitted infection, but correctly using a condom each time you have sex can help you limit exposure to bacteria. Plus, having fewer partners can help you better manage your vagina's bacterial balance overall.
- Avoid using flavored or scented products around or in your vagina. Using scented products, like perfumes or scented tampons, can lead to bacterial vaginosis because they actually alter your vagina's natural chemistry. Stick with unscented soaps and period products instead.
- Stay away from douches. As we already went over, your vagina has got this whole cleaning thing down. She doesn't need any help, and douches can actually upset your vagina's already delicate pH balance.
The Office on Women's Health says that the majority of women experience a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their life. Your vagina can have low levels of yeast without you ever noticing, but when the microscopic fungus, Candida, overgrows, yeast infection symptoms can result in a sweet or even sour vaginal scent. Because it's caused by yeast, you might even find that your vagina smells like bread, flour or beer. This strong smell is usually accompanied by itching, burning or feelings of dryness. In some cases, vaginal discharge also changes to a consistency like cottage cheese.
Unlike bacterial vaginosis, you don't need antibiotics to treat a yeast infection. You can order antifungal meds from wisp to prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections, whether it's your first case or more of a chronic issue. Most of the same strategies for preventing bacterial vaginosis apply when reducing the chances of getting a yeast infection, but you can also:
- Keep your genital area dry. Yeast thrives in moist environments, so it's helpful to dry yourself off after a shower or bath and change out of wet underwear or swimwear as soon as possible.
- Avoid oral sex with a partner that has thrush. Thrush is an oral yeast infection that can be transferred through mouth-to-genital contact. If your partner has thrush, either avoid oral sex altogether or opt for a dental dam to protect your privates.
- Use antibiotics only when necessary. Antibiotics are super helpful for killing bacteria, but sometimes even too helpful. Antibiotic use can result in the elimination of good vaginal bacteria, allowing vaginal yeast to thrive and grow. Be sure to consult your doctor if you're prone to yeast infections so they can help you monitor your antibiotics use.
Sometimes we make plans, but our vaginas don’t always want to cooperate. Also called dyspareunia, research indicates that 10 to 20 percent of U.S. women suffer from recurring and persistent pain associated with sexual activity. This concern isn’t just a mild annoyance—it can affect your mental and physical health, relationships, body image, and get in the way of becoming pregnant.
The most common causes of painful sex include vaginismus, vulvodynia, inadequate lubrication, postpartum dyspareunia, and vaginal atrophy. Once the issue is identified, treatment may include lubricants, hormonal treatments, pelvic floor physical therapy, or surgery. Whatever the issue, there’s no need to go another day missing out on the health and wellness benefits of pain-free sexual intercourse.
How to clean your vagina
Historically, Western society has long labeled vaginas as dirty, smelly, even a major cause of STD spread. The reality? Vaginas are actually self-cleaning — what’s lower maintenance than that? The discharge of a healthy vagina helps keep it moisturized, clean from foreign bacteria, and at the optimal pH. In fact, using a douche or inserting cleansers inside the vagina increases your risk of infection and irritation because it disrupts your body’s natural maintenance. Throwing off your pH can lead to bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection — not fun.
Even though vaginas are internally self-cleaning, it’s important to keep the labia, vulva, and the skin around the genital area free from dirt and debris so infection-causing bacteria don’t have the chance to thrive. Splashing and gentle rubbing with warm water is often enough to do the trick, but you can also incorporate a wash that’s formulated for sensitive skin if you like. Wisp’s Balancing Wash is one great option that’s gentle enough for genital skin and includes natural ingredients that soothe irritation and help you maintain a balanced pH.
Ultimately, the key to a healthy vagina? Making sure you take care of infections quickly and preventing problems before they get the chance to cause chaos. Get the care and treatment you need with wisp ☺️