The vagina is an incredible, complex and poorly understood part of our body. In many cultures, the vagina is not something that is talked about openly, and a recent survey carried out by Balance Activ showed that less than a third of women said they are likely to speak with their GP about their vaginal health, and only just over a third of women were likely to talk to their partner about it. The survey also revealed that less than a quarter of women felt confident that they definitely understood their bodies and how they work.
So if we’re not talking about our vaginas and we don’t understand them, how can we keep them healthy? This article aims to explain what goes on inside the vagina, and highlight what to do if you think something is wrong.
Step 1: Know what your vagina is
Many people don’t realise that the vagina is not the part that you can see – that’s called the vulva and it forms the entrance to the vagina. Our research showed that more than one in ten women thought that vulva was another word for vagina. The vagina is in fact a narrow passage that runs between the vulva the cervix, where the uterus or ‘womb’ begins. It measures somewhere between 7.5 and 9cm in length and is a muscular passage that can expand in length and width during sex and childbirth.
Step 2: Understand your vaginal balance
Inside the vagina is where things get really interesting. It’s home to millions of different micro-organisms all working together, a miniature ecosystem. There are some particularly ‘helpful’ bacteria in there, one type being ‘Lactobacillus’ which produces lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Lactic acid helps to keep the vagina slightly acidic, which is how it wants to be. In fact, if it starts to lose its acidity, for example if something alkaline is introduced such as semen, or something affects the growth of lactobacilli, then it can lead to an overgrowth of other bacteria and subsequently you experience symptoms of bacterial vaginosis. Hydrogen peroxide, produced by the Lactobacillus is key in keeping other bacteria at bay by slowing their growth and preventing conditions such as Bacterial Vaginosis (BV).
Step 3: Know when something isn’t right
When things get out of balance, you might experience abnormal discharge, unusual smells or discomfort. It’s important to know what’s normal and keep an eye out for any changes that take place as it could be a sign of an underlying vaginal health condition. Some of the more common conditions and their symptoms can be seen below but if you’re not sure, click here to try our symptom checker, which has been designed with healthcare professionals and women who have suffered BV to help you to get the right advice and treatment. Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis can include; a fishy smell, thin, watery or grey discharge, or even just more discharge than usual and discomfort caused by the unusual discharge. It’s worth noting that symptoms of bacterial vaginosis are often confused with thrush symptoms – click here for more information on common vaginal conditions and their symptoms.
Step 4: Get to know your personal triggers
This can be different for all of us but if you’re prone to conditions such as BV or thrush, you might find you start to recognise a pattern of when they flare up. Some of the more common triggers that can upset your vaginal balance and increase the chance of conditions such as BV are:
- Douching – there’s no need to douche, the vagina maintains its own balance perfectly and introducing water or soaps by douching can upset it
- Intimate washes, especially those that are heavily scented
- Very hot baths and perfumed bath products
- Heavy periods
- Sex without a condom
- Tight trousers or underwear
- Some antibiotics can upset the balance by reducing the good bacteria as well as the harmful ones
Step 5: Get the right treatment when something goes wrong
Don’t be embarrassed to talk to your pharmacist or doctor about your intimate health, they have seen it all before!
If you know that you are prone to a certain condition such as BV or Thrush, there’s no harm in keeping some treatments at home in the bathroom cupboard so that you can nip it in the bud once you see the symptoms. Balance Activ gel or pessaries quickly and effectively treat BV click here. Balance Activ works in two ways to restore the natural balance of the vagina, relieving symptoms of BV and restoring the normal vaginal pH to get things back in balance. The lactic acid restores the pH and the glycogen encourage the growth of protective, good bacteria.
And finally – remember to listen to your body, if the treatment you are using isn’t working, or if you feel something isn’t right, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional.