People with vaginas know—from the time that you realize what it is and what it does, you have a love-hate relationship with it. Vaginal discomfort can cause a lot of distress for people.
The vagina is a carefully crafted ecosystem with a healthy mixture of bacteria (some harmful, some good) and yeast coexisting together. It is important to maintain a healthy balance of all these factors to avoid vaginal infection. A normal vaginal pH is acidic, somewhere between 3.8 and 4.5. A lay person does not need to keep track of that; however, it is important to know that when the vaginal balance is disrupted, it will result in an odor or a discharge. Having these symptoms is your body’s way of telling you that your vaginal pH may be off. This blog post provides an overview of common vaginal symptoms, treatments, and helpful tips for prevention.
All vaginal odor is not abnormal. The vagina has a natural scent. Signs that the vaginal odor may be abnormal include an accompanying discharge, stronger odor with sexual activity, or irritation and itching in the outer vaginal area—which is called the vulva.
Sometimes foreign objects left in the vagina can be the cause of vaginal odor. For example, “lost” tampons have been a cause I have encountered several times over the course of my career. Another thing that can be left behind is a condom. It is important to remember to account for the condom after sexual activity when a condom is used. If a condom remains in the vagina it can cause an odor, eventually irritation, and possibly infection if it's been there for some time.
Normal vaginal discharge is usually clear or milky and may have a subtle scent that is not unpleasant or foul smelling. Vaginal discharge changes over the course of your menstrual cycle and changes in color and thickness are associated with ovulation and are natural. An abnormal vaginal discharge can also be milky, in addition to, gray, foamy or watery. When we're thinking about abnormal vaginal discharge, there are two conditions that come to mind: bacterial vaginosis and vaginal yeast infections. The symptoms for these problems are actually very similar and may include burning, itching, swelling, irritation, and pressure in the vulvar area, painful urination, and pain during sexual activity.
Vaginal infections, also called “vaginitis”, are treated with antibiotics prescribed by a health care provider. Making an accurate diagnosis aids in determining the appropriate therapy. It is possible to have an ongoing persistent infection if the treatment doesn’t completely resolve the symptoms. Alternatively, you may have some resolution of symptoms and then they return. This is called a recurrent infection. Completing your prescribed course of therapy minimizes the chance of having an inadequately treated infection. If you find that you're having vaginal infections four to five times a year, then you may benefit from having a prolonged course of treatment to make sure that the infection is completely resolved.
Vaginal symptoms can sometimes become cyclical in relation to one’s menstrual cycle. This means that you might notice that you were having a little bit of irritation, discharge, or itching, but then your period comes and after that, the symptoms go away. This is sometimes the case because the hormonal changes that occur over the course of your menstrual cycle aids in the natural cleansing of the vagina. The vagina is self-cleansing, and you don't have to do very much to help it out. In some instances, I've had people come see me after having these cyclical symptoms for months. On evaluation, I occasionally see evidence of an overgrowth of both bacteria and yeast. This occurs because your body has been cycling through varying pH levels over time and now you have a mixed infection. Both must be treated to alleviate the symptoms.
People may exhibit different signs and symptoms of infection. For example, we often think of a yeast infection as being accompanied by a very, very intense itching and irritation of the vulva. That is not always the case. Without the irritation, people often don't notice that they have a yeast infection until they get evaluated for a discharge. They often ponder, “Why wasn’t I itching?” Bacterial vaginosis is typically associated with a watery, milky white discharge and “fishy” odor. The associated discharge may be gray, or foamy, or just like water. A foul odor does not always accompany bacterial vaginosis. Attempts at self diagnosis are often inaccurate.
Recurrent yeast infections may be a sign of another medical condition. Diabetes can increase your risk of developing recurrent and chronic yeast infections. People with compromised immune systems from HIV, autoimmune conditions like lupus, or other conditions, have an increased risk of recurrent yeast infections as well. A healthcare professional can screen you for other medical conditions that may put you at risk for recurrent vaginal yeast infections.
Preventing Vaginal Infections
Vaginal infections are not fun to have or treat, and are even more distressing when they recur or become chronic. Here are some tips you can incorporate to improve your vaginal health.
Your vaginal health can be a reflection of our overall health. Empower yourself with the tips discussed here to practice good vaginal health and avoid infection. Have those awkward conversations about what you’re experiencing with your healthcare provider to get to know your body better and give yourself some peace of mind. Please like and share if you found this information helpful.
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