Steps You Can Take to Protect Vaginal Health
All women should be concerned about their vaginal health. A healthy vagina is naturally acidic and contains rich quantities of beneficial bacteria that help fend off infections and maintain a normal pH level. A healthy vagina will also secrete small amounts of discharge to keep itself clean, much as saliva is produced to help cleanse your mouth. Any interference with these normal conditions, and you may face vaginal irritation or infection. Here’s how to keep your vagina healthy.
Protect Vaginal PH Balance Without Douching
Douching can interfere with the vagina’s pH levels, reducing its acidity and setting the stage for bacterial infections. Normally, vaginal pH is about 3.8 to 4.5. 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 a balanced, nutritious diet and drinking plenty of fluids are key to vaginal and reproductive health. In fact, certain foods may be effective in treating vaginal health problems. Cranberry juice and yogurt can potentially help prevent yeast infections and aid in their treatment. And if you experience vaginal dryness, ask your doctor if you should eat more soy products, which contain a weak form of estrogen that can aid natural lubrication.
Practice Safe Sex to Keep Harmful Bacteria Out
Using condoms during sex helps to protect against sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, genital herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, genital warts, and chlamydia. Some of these diseases, like HIV and genital herpes, have no cure. And others, like the human papillomavirus that causes genital warts, are also known to cause cancer or lead to other diseases. You should change condoms when switching from oral or anal sex to vaginal sex, to prevent the introduction of harmful bacteria into the vagina.
See Your Gynecologist for Preventive Care
Having regular gynecological exams is crucial to maintaining your vaginal health. Every woman should have her first gynecological exam by age 21 or within three years of becoming sexually active. Gynecologists and many family physicians are trained to diagnose diseases and disorders that can harm the vagina or your reproductive system as a whole. Gynecologists also perform Pap smears, which can detect changes in vaginal cells that might indicate the presence of cancer.
Treat Infections When They Arise
Three types of vaginal infections are common: yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. Yeast infections are caused by several types of fungi, while bacterial vaginosis is caused by bacteria overgrowth in the vagina. Trichomoniasis is sexually transmitted. Treating these infections is crucial because not treating them can lead to unpleasant, painful, and serious reproductive health problems. All three are can be treated with oral or topical medications.
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, sometimes to the point of breaking. While vaginal lubrication usually occurs naturally during female arousal, some women do not produce enough natural lubricant. In this case, women should use an artificial lubricant to reduce friction and irritation, and to enhance pleasure. Avoid petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) and other oil-based products for this purpose because they can cause latex in condoms to break down and also might cause 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 styles worn close to the genitals can increase heat and moisture, potentially leading to bacteria overgrowth and infections. Wear cotton underwear during the day, and avoid thongs. Try not to wear tight-fitting clothing, and change out of wet swimsuits and sweaty workout clothes as quickly as possible.
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. When you’re not having your period, do not use pads or panty liners to absorb normal vaginal discharge; they will keep moisture and warmth near your vagina, which can result in infection.