Vaginal health is a crucial component of women’s health, but much of it is misunderstood. Much like other bodily systems, the vagina is complicated, which means the slightest things can disrupt the delicate balance it requires for optimal function.
To ensure long-lasting vaginal health, here is what you should know.
The vagina is self-cleaning & pH matters
The first thing to know is that your vagina maintains a slightly acidic environment thanks to the hard work of natural, healthy bacteria called lactobacilli. Subsequently, the bacteria need a slightly acidic environment to stay alive.
This environment, coupled with the bacteria, help keep harmful pathogens out of the vagina to prevent infections, diseases and the like. Thus, unlike most other parts of your body, your vagina can clean itself. Those healthy bacteria work to maintain the harmonious balance within the system. Self-cleaning is generally why you secrete mucus-like discharge regularly, which is typically clear or slightly white in color.
This is why vaginal and genital cleansing can get a little confusing.
The process of douching, or vaginal irrigation, with water and other fluids can be extremely harmful to this self-cleaning system. When vaginal flushing is performed, the helpful bacteria in the vagina are also washed away, making room for harmful bacteria to settle in. You may think you’re doing your body a favor by cleaning your vagina, but you’re actually putting yourself at a greater risk for yeast and bacterial infections. In general, you should not douche.
Of course, you do want to clean your genital area daily. You can wash the labia with just water, but if you do use soap, use one without harsh chemicals or fragrances. Not only is the skin outside the vagina delicate and easily irritated or dried out, but soap and fragrances can also throw off the pH balance of the system if they do get inside because they tend to be more alkaline.
What you wear ‘down there’ matters
You may have a style or fabric preference when it comes to your underwear, but so does your vagina. It’s important to wear light, breathable fabrics to maintain proper moisture levels. Cotton is generally recommended for this.
Wearing tight, synthetic underwear can prevent proper air flow and trap moisture, which is bad news for vaginal health. Tight shorts or pants, as well as things like damp swimsuits or sweaty clothes after working out, also put you at risk for infection.
And, at night, many gynecologists recommend you ditch the underwear altogether to allow your vagina to breathe.
Look out for infections
A slight odor and some white or clear discharge from your vagina are normal. The level of this discharge can fluctuate based on where you are in your menstrual cycle. Over time, you should come to know what is “normal” for your body. This makes it much easier to identify when things are not normal.
However, if you suddenly develop a strong odor—particularly one that is very pungent or fish-like—and/or discharge of a different color or texture, including grey, darker yellow or green, these are signs that you might be experiencing a vaginal infection.
Additionally, you may notice some physical sensations, including burning or itching, swelling and general irritation. All of these are signs of infection, as well.
Yeast infections are some of the most common, and they are caused by an overgrowth of natural fungi in the vagina. This usually happens after a round of antibiotics has wiped out the vagina’s healthy bacteria or if the vagina has been allowed to accumulate a lot of moisture and heat.
Similarly, bacterial vaginosis can occur due to an overgrowth of bacteria. This usually happens when the slightly acidic environment of the vagina is thrown off, becoming less acidic and more alkaline.
Practice safe sex
Of course, practicing safe sexual intercourse is another major aspect of maintaining a healthy vagina. Sex can introduce bacteria and infections, can cause damage to vaginal tissues and even disrupt your vaginal pH.
To protect yourself against STIs and pH disruption, wear condoms during sexual intercourse. Additionally, use personal lubricant to make sex easier, safer and more comfortable. Although the vagina lubricates itself naturally, it may not be enough to prevent pain or discomfort during penetrative sex.
Diet can help, too
What you eat affects your entire body, including your vagina, which means drinking water and eating a healthy balance of vitamins and nutrients will help keep your vagina in good health.
Eating foods with probiotics like yogurt can also keep the healthy bacteria down there in strong numbers, too. Taking probiotic supplements may also help.
Overall, keeping yourself healthy and active, as well as taking special precautions in regard to underwear, sexual intercourse and cleanliness, will help your vagina stay as healthy and balanced as possible.