Keeping Your Vagina Healthy

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Keeping the vagina healthy

 This FAQ is concerned with the vagina, the opening that leads to the uterus. Some people when using the term “vagina” are actually referring to the vulva (female genitals) which is outside.

Many women are unsure about vaginal health, in particular its secretions and odour, and wonder what is considered normal.

Unfortunately, there is an entire industry built around “feminine hygiene” based on the idea that the vagina smells bad. Every vagina has its own natural scent and does not require any product to mask it.

There are two types of fluids that come out through the vagina: the lubrication of sexual excitement and cervical mucus. Cervical mucus varies with the menstrual cycle. At the most fertile time (around ovulation), it is stretchy, stringy and clear; at the least fertile time it is sticky. Cervical mucus dries white or yellow on underwear. After menopause, there is no longer any cervical mucus.

It's a good idea pay attention to your own secretions and vaginal odour. If you notice something unusual, you may need to see a health care provider.

How can I avoid vaginal irritation? 

  • keep your genital area dry and well aired;
  • wear cotton underwear or underwear with cotton at the crotch;
  • avoid wearing underwear at night;
  • change pads and tampons regularly - at least every 4-8 hours;
  • avoid wearing a tampon overnight;
  • avoid vaginal sprays and deodorants;
  • use unscented pads and tampons;
  • explore alternatives to pads and tampons, like a menstrual cup;
  • remove damp swim wear and sports clothes as soon as possible;
  • do not share towels, washcloths or bathing suits;
  • avoid strong detergents;
  • avoid tight-fitting clothes and wearing synthetic materials next to your skin; and
  • wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement.

What about douching? 

A vaginal douche forces water or other solutions into the vaginal cavity. Some women use it after intercourse in the mistaken belief that it will prevent pregnancy; some use it to rinse away discharge or blood at the end of their menstrual period. Some use it because they have been told it is good hygiene. But the vagina cleans itself. It regularly flushes out dead cells and maintains a delicate acidic balance. Douching can upset this balance and increase the risk of irritation. It can also force bacteria into the fallopian tubes.

You can wash outside (the vulva) with warm water. Avoid using scented soaps. Some women find that using any soap at all can be irritating.

How do you prevent vaginal infections? 

There are several common infections, including bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast. BV causes a very strong odour and thick, white discharge. Yeast infections can cause irritation and itching on the vulva, inside the vagina and a discharge that looks like cottage cheese. There are treatments for both. BV tends to come back and there is no certain preventative. Yeast feed on sugar. Some women find changing their diet and even their lubricant – if they use one - may help. Some women get a yeast infection after using antibiotics. They may take probiotics to repopulate the organisms that usually live in the vagina. Stress, illness and hormone changes like pregnancy can also make the vagina more vulnerable to infection. Women who are HIV-positive tend to have recurrent vaginal infections.

Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may cause unusual discharge or vaginal irritation [http://www.cwhn.ca/en/STIfaq]. Male or female condoms reduce your risk for vaginal STIs. Some women who are sensitive or allergic to latex can choose non-latex condoms. Condoms are the only birth control method that reduce the risk of STIs.

Postmenopausal women may find that they feel dryness and burning because their vaginal walls are less elastic. Lubricants and bioadhesive vaginal gels may help, particularly for vaginal sexual activity. Self-pleasuring (masturbation) is another way to keep the vagina lubricated.

Women who have had recurrent yeast infections and are familiar with the symptoms may choose over the counter anti-fungal medication. However, if this is the first time you have any of the following symptoms, see a health care provider:

  • itching outside or inside;
  • irritation or soreness;
  • burning sensation when you urinate;
  • increased or unusual discharge;
  • swelling of the labia;
  • bumps or sores outside or inside;
  • bleeding after sex or between periods;
  • painful intercourse;
  • unpleasant odour; or
  • abdominal pain.

If STIs are not treated, they can lead to further health problems.

This FAQ may provide medical information, but is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. When you have questions about your health, it is always advisable to ask a health care practitioner.

Revised February 2014