Sex, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Your reproductive tract is a powerful part of your body.
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While you may worry about keeping your vagina healthy and clean, the truth is, you don’t need to do much.
Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD, explains how to keep your vagina healthy and when you may need to pay a visit to your gynecologist. “Your vagina requires very little care, so less is more.”
What is a vagina vs. a vulva?
Most people tend to use the term “vagina” to describe or talk about their genitals, including their vulva.
But what’s the difference?
Your vagina is the birth canal, connecting to your cervix.
Your vulva is the outside area of your genitals. This is the part you can see. It includes your clitoris, urethra and labia.
“Your vagina, which is pink in appearance, can’t be seen from the outside,” explains Dr. Goje. “Your vagina is characterized by its ability to change shape, which is most evident during childbirth.”
It’s important to understand the difference between your vulva and vagina because the cellular makeup of both is different. Some diseases are specific to your vagina or vulva.
How to have a healthy vagina and vulva
Here’s how to keep your vagina in working order.
Go for whole-body health
Eat right, control your weight and exercise.
“Not only is this good for your whole body; it’s good for your sexual organs, too,” says Dr. Goje.
Conversely, chronic conditions can put your genital organs at risk. For example, poorly controlled diabetes increases the likelihood of contracting yeast infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Get regular screenings
Stay current with health screenings and see your gynecologist for routine care.
“Remember that screening intervals for Pap smears change based upon your age and Pap smear findings,” says Dr. Goje. “For younger individuals, HPV vaccination is especially important for reducing cervical cancer risk.”
It’s so important to protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases like herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV, as well as any unplanned pregnancies.
“Insist on using condoms with any new sexual partner,” stresses Dr. Goje.
If your partner has a latex allergy, there are other condom options available.
Just use water
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Using harsh chemicals, prepackaged wipes or douching can disrupt its normal process. If you must, a gentle soap is OK for your external genitalia.
Most products marketed to help you feel or smell cleaner aren’t backed by any scientific evidence and can lead to other problems.
“If you have particularly sensitive skin, also watch for soaps and shampoos you use in the shower,” advises Dr. Goje. “Even laundry detergents, dryer sheets and some lubricants can cause irritation.”
Don’t prep for your gynecologist
No need to primp and pamper your privates before your gynecologist appointment.
“Showering is all we expect and desire,” says Dr. Goje.
Consider natural lubricants
Coconut oil or olive oil may be preferred lubricants and vaginal moisturizers if you have sensitive skin or have multiple allergies. You can also use silicone or water-based lubricants as alternatives.
“They’re an option for those who aren’t using condoms,” says Dr. Goje.
If you’re using a latex condom, opt for water-based or silicone lubricants.
Never ignore postmenopausal bleeding
Postmenopausal bleeding is defined as vaginal bleeding that happens a year or more after your last menstrual period.
Postmenopausal bleeding can be a symptom of vaginal dryness, polyps (noncancerous growths), cancer or other changes in your reproductive system.
“If you ever experience bleeding after menopause, see your doctor for an evaluation,” recommends Dr. Goje.
Remember, prolapse and incontinence aren’t usually dangerous
Pelvic organ prolapse, where the internal supports of your uterus, vagina, bladder and rectum become weak over time, can be caused by vaginal deliveries and aging.
Another common issue is urinary incontinence, or bladder leakage.
Once diagnosed, these conditions only need treatment if they bother you — no need to treat them just because your gynecologist noted them during an exam.
“However, if you have trouble emptying your bladder or bowels or have pain or bleeding, it’s time to seek care,” says Dr. Goje.
Pelvic floor exercises, known as Kegels, can help, too.
Consider vaginal estrogen
As you go through menopause, it might be worthwhile to use a vaginal estrogen, which is available as a cream, tablet, capsule or insert.
“Vaginal estrogen can help prevent or reverse changes that occur with age like painful sex (due to thinning vaginal walls and less elasticity) and increased risk for UTIs [urinary tract infections] (due to pH changes as the vagina becomes less acidic),” says Dr. Goje.
While your vagina does a great job of keeping itself clean and healthy, you should see your healthcare provider if you notice any of the following:
- Pain during intercourse.
- A mass or bulge in your vagina.
- A change in the color, odor or amount of vaginal discharge.
- Vaginal redness or itching.
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause.
Overall, your vagina doesn’t need much maintenance. “The vagina is like a self-cleaning oven when it functions properly,” says Dr. Goje.