Whether it's regarding our pubes, hair or skin, women are constantly sold unrealistic expectations of body image. In some cases, this has even stretched to how we look after our vaginas. Yes, really. With so many stories about what’s best for our precious vaginas, it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction.
To help quash all your vagina-related fears, we've enlisted Dr Anita Mitra aka The Gynae Geek, contributor to hormone and cycle tracking app Moody Month, to sift through some of the most radical claims about healthcare for ‘down there’.
1. You don't need to use washes, wipes, plumping serums
These products are flying onto the market, and unfortunately flying off the shelves... but for no good reason.
Your vagina (the tube on the inside) should never be washed with anything. And your vulva (on the outside) just needs a gentle rinse with warm water. Just as the gut contains healthy bacteria, so does the vagina, and these bacteria actually help our vaginas clean themselves, and protect us from irritation and infections. Using these products can disturb these good bugs and cause irritation, discharge and also thrush and bacterial vaginosis. So if you want to use them because you have any of these issues, it will only make it worse. See your GP about getting some proper treatment and to actually check what the real problem is. Don't feel you have to self-treat. I've never met anyone who said they help, but I'd told loads of women to stop using them and they're always grateful!
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2. You don't always need to take a probiotic for down-there health
Probiotics are an exciting prospect for health in general. And whilst there is some emerging evidence that they help people with recurrent thrush and bacterial vaginosis, there isn't currently any evidence to suggest that we all need to take them. If you don't have issues with itching, foul-smelling discharge or irritation it suggests that your vaginal microbiome is happy and healthy, so probiotics won't really do anything to improve it.
3. Discharge is normal
Many women that I speak to seem to think that discharge is a bad thing but it's healthy! It's what moisturises, lubricates and protects us from infections. Your discharge will change throughout your cycle. It will usually be thickest and maybe slightly dry right after your period. It them becomes thinner, even watery towards the middle of your cycle, and there can be a surprisingly large amount. It will be like an egg-white around the time that you ovulate. And then slowly become thicker, and more whitish as you approach your period.
Tracking your cycle can be a great way of keeping tabs on the changes in your discharge. If it's a very unusual colour, itchy, foul-smelling or bloodstained you should chat to your doctor. If you're taking hormonal contraception you won't see these extreme changes in discharge throughout the cycle, but fear not, it's still protecting you in the same way.
4. STI checks are not only for the promiscuous
Chlamydia is the most common STI and it doesn't show any symptoms in about 70% of women. Other STI's such as gonorrhoea are also quite commonly asymptomatic, which is why screening is so important. It doesn't matter how many people you've slept with or are currently sleeping with. If you're not using condoms, you need to get checked for STI's, because you share germs with that person, but also all the people that either of you have ever slept with, so make sure you've both been checked before you get down to it.
It's not a shameful thing to go to a sexual health clinic, it's responsible. Most STI's are pretty easy to treat, and its important to do so because if left untreated they can cause long-term problems such as chronic pain, or problems with getting pregnant in the future. Sexual health clinics are also a great source of info about contraception too. Two birds, one responsible stone!
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5. If it's bothering you, bother someone about it
I see so many women who have awful problems with their periods, hormones, vaginas or problems with having sex. And a lot of them have had these problems for a long time, but say they took a long time to come forward because they didn't want to bother their doctor.
My general rule is 'if it's bothering you, bother someone about it'. Doctors are here for advice and reassurance as well as treatment. Don't suffer in silence and don't try and self-diagnose yourself online. Please get help from someone qualified.
Tracking your cycle and your symptoms with an app such as Moody Month is a great way of keeping a log of what's going on when, and also for working out if there might be a pattern with the time of the month, or other things that are going on in your life, such as times of stress or poor sleep. I'm always really pleased when someone gets our their app to show me what their cycle is like, because it means we can use the relatively short amount of time we have in the consultation to it's maximum effect.