Tucked away down under, it’s easy to overlook the health of your vagina. You might not be so focused on how to keep your vagina healthy day to day, because it’s only when something goes wrong that we look to deal with it. But getting to know your vagina and how it looks, smells and functions will help you spot infections, irritations and pick up on more serious issues.
Getting clued up on your vaginal health is important because, for too long, we’ve been exposed to unrealistic ideals of how a ‘normal’ vagina should be.
Maybe you see countless vaginal hygiene products on the shelves and worry yours isn’t fragrant enough. Or perhaps you feel anxious that yours isn’t small, neat or hairless enough and are considering cosmetic surgery.
The truth is, products such as vaginal deodorants are unnecessary – a healthy vagina does a great job of cleaning itself – and every vagina is supposed to look unique. It’s important not to be embarrassed about your vagina and get to know yours, so you can take action if you’re concerned – whether it’s a change in
vaginal discharge, itching, a strange smell or unusual bleeding.
Read on for all you need to know about having a healthy vagina, how to recognise when something’s wrong and when to see your doctor.
What does a normal vagina look like?
There’s no one ideal. The outside of your genitals, known as your vulva – your vagina is the canal inside – look different from one woman to another, and that includes size and colour. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to images you see online as this can undermine your confidence and self-esteem.
Instead, take a look at the vulvas pictured and see how no one is the same. Get to know your own vagina by doing a regular
vagina health check at home. Check for lumps or bumps, soreness or redness and signs of something more serious.
Get to know your ‘vagina’
Your vulva has different parts:
mons pubis: the external mound in front of your pubic bones covered with pubic hair that acts as a cushion when you have sex. It releases chemicals called pheromones when you’re sexually attracted to someone
labia majora: these are the hairy larger lips that protect your vaginal opening and the inner part of your vulva
labia minora: the smaller, hairless lips that surround your clitoris at the front
clitoris: the sensitive, spongy tissue that varies in size from person to person. It’s covered by a hood that in some women completely covers the glans. It swells when you get aroused (turned on), which can result in an orgasm
vulva vestibule: the smooth surface below your clitoris and in between your labia minora that’s home to the opening to your urethra (where your pee comes out) and your vaginal opening
vagina: the interior muscular channel that connects your vulva vestibule to your cervix. Your vagina expands and contracts to accommodate a penis, sex toy, fingers, tampons and to deliver a baby. Sperm travels up your vagina to your cervix and onto your uterus and fallopian tubes, and it’s also the route out for period blood and discharge
Find useful information on other areas of vaginal health with our
How does your vagina stay clean and healthy?
Your vagina has its own built-in cleaning system and a colony of good bacteria, known as the microbiome, that keep its pH balance at the right level. A healthy microbiome protects against infections and keeps the ‘bad’ bacteria that can cause infections, such as
bacterial vaginosis (BV), in check.
Signs that your vagina is generally healthy are:
it feels comfortable
there isn’t vaginal dryness
no itching, pain, swelling or rashes
it has a mild smell or no smell
your discharge can be white, thin and clear or thick and sticky depending on where you are on your cycle
no discomfort of pain during sex
Self cleansing vagina
Your vagina does a great job of cleaning itself with natural discharge. Normal discharge is a mix of vaginal cells and good bacteria in fluid that’s produced by the walls of your vagina and cervix. This discharge doesn’t smell and it’s milky white or thin and clear. If you notice any change in colour or odour, this may be a sign of an infection. Know when something is amiss by reading our article on
Read our articles on
how to keep your vagina healthy and vaginal self care.
Help your vagina stay healthy
Follow these top tips to keep your vagina healthy and infection-free:
avoid using vaginal douches – they lower the acidity of your vagina, raising your risk of inflammation
highly scented shower gels and soaps can irritate your vulva – swap to washing with just water or an unperfumed or non-allergenic soap
use condoms to protect against STIs during sex and clean sex toys after each use
wear loose cotton underwear and change it daily – tight underwear made from synthetic fibres can trap moisture and encourage the growth of bacteria and yeast, which may lead to infections
avoid wearing tight trousers as it stops air circulating and increases your likelihood of developing thrush
take care when shaving pubic hair – or try other hair removal methods – as you might get ingrown hairs
having regular sex after the menopause helps to increase blood flow in your vagina, and this can maintain muscle tone, your vagina’s length and elasticity
if you smoke it’s a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis as it causes a drop in the number of healthy bacteria in your vagina
there is some evidence to show that probiotic supplements with lactobacillus rhamnosus can boost healthy bacteria in your vagina. You can also find this probiotic in certain yoghurts and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi
Changes to your vagina
Did you know the shape, size and colour your vagina can change? Here’s how and why:
Sex and masturbation
Sex and masturbation change the shape of your vagina during sex – it expands and lengthens to accommodate a penis, finger or sex toy, only to go back to it’s normal shape afterwards.
When you’re turned on, a number of different changes swing into action. Your clitoris and labia minora swell as blood rushes towards them – they go back to their original size after you’ve reached your peak of sexual excitement (orgasm). The increased blood flow also causes your vagina to produce more arousal fluid – often called ‘getting wet’.
This wetness is different to your usual cervical mucus – both cervical mucus and arousal fluid come under the umbrella of ‘vaginal discharge.’ Read more about
what happens to your body when you’re aroused. healthy
If you have a vaginal birth you may need stitches for a tear. Careful cleaning will avoid infection and the wound should heal fully within 6 to 12 weeks. Other changes to your vagina following pregnancy and childbirth are:
weakening of your pelvic floor (vagina muscles and ligaments). Having a baby can cause:
loss of bladder control: This can happen before you give birth because of the pressure of the baby on your tummy. After birth, it’s also common for women to have urinary incontinence. Pelvic floor exercises are a good way to tighten overstretched muscles.
prolapse: a long, hard delivery may lead to a prolapse. This is when your pelvic organs slip into your vagina. It’s uncommon and estimates vary, but one large survey suggests it happens to 3% of women. It’s thought 50-75% of these are caused by childbirth. The risk increases the more babies you have and may be less if you have a caesarean delivery. You can strengthen your pelvic floor muscles by doing regular exercises
change of shape: After vaginal birth, your vagina may feel wider. This will improve and shouldn’t cause you problems although it’s unlikely to return to its exact former shape. There will also be swelling and bruising around your perineum (the area around your anus and vagina), which should heal quickly, but can last up to six weeks.
vaginal dryness: If you’re breastfeeding, you’ll have lower oestrogen levels and the drop in this hormone can make your vagina dryer and lead to painful sex. This should ease off once you stop breastfeeding but it can be treated with vaginal oestrogen if it’s causing problems.
Read more about
changes to your vagina after childbirth.
After the menopause – which usually happens between 45 and 55 years old – your oestrogen levels drop, which can lead to:
vaginal dryness: Read more about the causes and self care here
vaginal prolapse: As your pelvic floor muscles weaken your pelvic organs can slip into your vagina and cause discomfort. If you suspect you have symptoms of vaginal prolapse, see a doctor
How to spot and treat vaginal health problems
There are several signs that you might have a vaginal health issue. If you have any of the symptoms below, go to your doctor or sexual health clinic:
What it could be:
Vaginismus can bring on a burning or stinging pain when you have sex. Vulvodynia causes persistent vulval pain that can be burning, stinging, throbbing or soreness, or a raw sensation
Symptom: unusual discharge
What it could be:
Thrush can give you discharge that looks a bit like cottage cheese but doesn’t usually smell. If you’ve had thrush before you can usually get treatment over the counter from a pharmacy, without a prescription. Discharge that isn’t normal for you could be a sign of a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), such as trichomoniasis.
Symptom: inflammation (soreness and swelling)
What it could be:
Vaginitis (also called vulvovaginitis) is the term used for any type of inflammation of your vagina, vulva, labia and clitoris, which often leads to soreness and swelling. It can be caused by lots of different things, but it often happens because of an infection or something that changes the normal balance of vaginal bacteria.
Symptom: vaginal dryness
What it could be: Dryness can happen following childbirth or the menopause, due to a drop in oestrogen. You can often treat vaginal dryness with self-care methods such as moisturisers and lubricants but if it doesn’t improve, see a doctor.
Symptom: pain during sex
What it could be: This could be caused by a number of things, including vaginal dryness, an infection or genital irritation from products. Read more about
pain during sex.
Symptom: unusual bleeding
What it could be: Bleeding between periods,
after sex and after the menopause can be a sign of many problems including minor injuries caused by sex, an infection including an STI or more rarely a sign of cancer including later stage cervical cancer or womb cancer. Vaginal cancer is rare, but one of the most common signs are also bleeding from your the vagina after sex, between periods of after the menopause or discharge that has blood in it.