All women should be concerned about their vaginal health, but what constitutes a healthy vagina? While it depends somewhat on a woman’s age, the vagina generally has an acidic pH, contains rich quantities of beneficial bacteria that help fend off infections, and is naturally lubricated.
A healthy vagina also secretes small amounts of discharge. While some women might not even be aware of it, others “can notice anywhere up to a teaspoon or tablespoon of discharge a day,” says Leah Millheiser, MD, director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, California. “Discharge is a normal physiologic reaction — it’s essentially shedding of cervical and vaginal cells.”
But “if women experience changes in vaginal odor, a change in color of their discharge that may be associated with discomfort — whether it’s pelvic discomfort or vulvar discomfort, itching, or burning — any change needs to be evaluated,” says Dr. Millheiser. Follow these rule to keep your vagina healthy.
Protect Vaginal PH Balance Without Douching
Normally, vaginal pH is about 3.8 to 4.5, but douching can interfere with the vagina’s pH levels, reducing acidity and disrupting a healthy vaginal biome — the bacterial makeup of your vagina — and setting the stage for bacterial infections.
If your vagina has a strong or unpleasant odor, see your doctor; a douche will only cover up the smell without curing the problem that’s causing it. Avoid using harsh soaps or cleansers on the vulva or inside the vagina, as these also can affect a healthy pH balance.
Maintain a Healthy Diet for Vaginal Health
You may not realize it, but following a balanced, nutritious diet and drinking plenty of fluids are both key to vaginal and reproductive health. In fact, certain foods may be effective in treating vaginal health problems.
Yogurt can potentially help prevent yeast infections and aid in their treatment. “Yogurt is rich in probiotics, especially plain Greek yogurt, so if a woman is prone to yeast infections, taking a probiotic that is rich in [the bacteria] Lactobacilli, or eating plain Greek yogurt every day can be helpful,” notes Millheiser.
If you’re prone to urinary tract infections, research published in July 2012 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine suggested it may be helpful to take a cranberry supplement daily.
Practice Safe Sex to Keep Harmful Germs Away
Using condoms — either the male or female kind — during sex helps to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as HIV, genital herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, genital warts, and chlamydia. Some of these, like HIV and genital herpes, have no cure. And others, like the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes genital warts, are known to cause cancer.
You should change condoms when switching from oral or anal sex to vaginal sex, to prevent the introduction of harmful bacteria into the vagina. You should also avoid sharing sex toys with your partner, notes Millheiser, as you can spread STIs that way — especially HPV.
See Your Gynecologist — or Primary Care Doctor — for Preventive Care
Having regular gynecological exams is crucial to maintaining your vaginal health. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women have their first screening gynecologic exam at age 21. It is also recommended that women undergo Pap smears starting at age 21 to screen for changes in vaginal cells that might indicate the presence of cancer. Gynecologists and many primary care physicians are trained to diagnose diseases and disorders that can harm the vagina or your reproductive system as a whole.
Treat Infections When They Arise
Three types of vaginal infections are common: yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. If you’re prone to yeast infections and you recognize the symptoms, it’s “okay to self-treat with an over-the-counter” medication, says Millheiser. “But if the symptoms don’t go away, then you need to be seen as soon as possible.”
While yeast is a fungal infection, bacterial vaginosis is caused by bacterial overgrowth in the vagina. Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a parasite and is sexually transmitted. Treating these infections is crucial because not treating them can lead to unpleasant, painful, and serious reproductive health problems. Millheiser notes that if you already have a vaginal infection and are then exposed to HIV, you’re more prone to becoming infected.
It’s worth noting that women who have poorly controlled diabetes or are infected with HIV can often experience recurrent yeast infections. “If you’re experiencing many yeast infections during the course of a year, you should be evaluated by your doctor to make sure that there’s nothing more worrisome going on,” says Millheiser.
Use Enough Lubricant, but Not Petroleum Jelly
Lubrication is an important part of intercourse. Without it, the skin of the labia and vagina can become irritated and chafed. While vaginal lubrication usually occurs naturally during female arousal, some women do not produce enough natural lubricant. In this case, they should use an artificial lubricant to reduce friction and to enhance pleasure.
If you’re trying to get pregnant, certain lubricants can interfere with the sperm and make it difficult to conceive, notes Millheiser. In this instance, she recommends using a pH-balanced product called Pre-Seed. If you’re not trying to get pregnant, water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based lubricants are fine, depending on what your needs are. “If you need a little bit of lubricant, then water-based is great. If you’re experiencing more dryness, consider using silicone-based or oil-based,” says Millhesier.
If you’re using condoms for protection, do not use an oil-based lubricant — they can cause the latex in condoms to break down. Millheiser also cautions, “Never put petroleum jelly or baby oil inside of your vagina. It causes inflammation and can set you up for infection.”
Choose Clothing Carefully to Stay Dry
Your vagina should stay clean and dry — and what you wear can affect that. Certain types of fabrics and tight-fitting clothing create warm, moist conditions in which yeast thrive. Wear breathable cotton underwear and avoid thongs. If you’re prone to yeast infections, change out of wet swimsuits and sweaty workout clothes as quickly as possible.
Dr. Millheiser’s advice: “If you experience a lot of discharge and dampness during the day, take two pairs of underwear with you every day when you go to work or school, and change your underwear during the day. It’ll help you feel more comfortable and will help prevent infection.”
Follow Good Hygiene
Common sense can go a long way in protecting the health of your vagina. After a bowel movement, wipe from front to back to avoid bacterial contamination of the vagina and to lower the risk of bladder infection. Change sanitary pads and tampons regularly during your period. Dr. Millheiser notes that it’s fine to wear panty liners to absorb normal vaginal discharge as long as you change them frequently, though she adds that women who wear them all the time may experience some vulvar irritation.