The Importance of Vaginal Health
The importance of vaginal health should not be taken lightly. It’s not just about sex. It means being aware of the signs of an unhealthy vagina and knowing when to see a specialist.
Vaginal problems can affect your sexual desire, fertility, and ability to reach orgasm. Recurring vaginal issues can also cause low self-esteem or relationship problems. Every woman should be aware of the signs and symptoms of vaginal problems and what should be done to protect the health of their vagina.
What Exactly is a Vagina?
The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal that connects the uterus to the outside of the body. It has a soft, flexible lining that provides sensation and lubrication. The vulva and labia form the entrance, and the cervix of the uterus protrudes into the vagina, forming the anterior end.
What Affects Vaginal Health?
Several factors can affect the health of your vagina, including:
- Pregnancy and childbirth. During pregnancy, menstruating stops and vaginal discharge increases. Vaginal tears are common during childbirth. Sometimes an episiotomy is done during childbirth, which is an incision made in the tissue of the vaginal opening. Vaginal laxity can also occur after having a baby as a result of the pelvic floor muscles around the vagina getting stretched out.
- Hormone levels. Changes in your hormone levels can affect your vaginal health. For example, estrogen production declines during breastfeeding and after menopause. Loss of estrogen can cause the vaginal lining to thin (atrophy), which not only creates laxity, but can be painful.
- Birth control and feminine-hygiene products. Vaginal irritation can be caused from using barrier contraceptives, such as condoms, diaphragms and spermicides. Using douches or sprays may cause irritation or make existing irritation worse.
- Sex. Sexually transmitted infections can result from unprotected sex. An injury to the pelvic region or forceful sex can result in vaginal trauma.
- Psychological issues. Depression and anxiety can reduce sex drive which can cause pain or discomfort during sex. Trauma, especially past sexual abuse, can also lead to painful sex.
- Certain health conditions or treatments: Conditions such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease might cause painful sex. Pelvic surgery scarring and certain cancer treatments also can cause pain during sex. Vaginal yeast infections can result from taking antibiotics.
What are the Most Common Vaginal Problems?
Conditions that might affect your vaginal health include:
- Laxity. A vaginal delivery can cause laxity, or looseness of the vagina. This is a regular occurrence after delivering a baby. At least one-third of all women with vaginal laxity feel less vaginal sensation with intercourse. Also, as women age, they often notice more looseness in the vagina since all muscles of the body become more relaxed in general. Dropping estrogen levels in menopause can cause significant vaginal laxity as well.
- Sexual problems. Pain just before, during or after sex is called dyspareunia. Pain during penetration might be caused by involuntary spasms of the muscles of the vaginal wall (vaginismus). The muscles in the pelvic floor can become tense, causing chronic pain and pain during intercourse. Often vaginal dryness occurs after menopause, which can also cause pain during intercourse.
- Sexually transmitted infections. Various sexually transmitted infections can affect the vagina, including genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, syphilis and more. Signs might include pain, abnormal vaginal discharge or genital sores.
- Vaginitis. A change in the normal balance of vaginal yeast and bacteria can cause vaginitis, inflammation of the vagina. Another cause could be an infection or reduced estrogen levels after menopause. Symptoms include vaginal discharge, odor, itching and pain. Common types of vaginitis include bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections and trichomoniasis.
- Pelvic floor relaxation and prolapse. If the supporting connective tissues that hold the uterus and the vaginal walls in place become weak, the vaginal walls, uterus, bladder, or rectum can prolapse, or fall. This can cause urine leakage, loss of urine control or a bulge in the vagina. Complete pelvic organ prolapse often feels like something is falling out of the vagina.
- Other conditions. Vaginal cysts can make it difficult to insert a tampon or cause painful sex. Vaginal cancer is a rare possibility, which might first appear as vaginal bleeding after sex or menopause. Other female reproductive cancers that can cause similar symptoms are: cervical, ovarian, endometrial, vulvar, and even more rare, fallopian tube cancer.
What are Signs and Symptoms of Vaginal Problems?
Consult your physician if you notice:
- A change in the color, odor or amount of vaginal discharge
- Vaginal redness or itching
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause
- A mass or bulge in your vagina
- Pain during intercourse.
What Can I Do to Maintain a Healthy Vagina?
You can take steps to maintain optimal vaginal health. For example:
- Do Kegel exercises. Kegel exercises can help tone your pelvic floor muscles if you have prolapse, urine leakage, or have weakness of the pelvic floor.
- Be sexually responsible. Use condoms or maintain a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who’s free of sexually transmitted infections. If you use sex toys, clean them after every use.
- Get vaccinated. Vaccinations can protect you from HPV, the virus associated with cervical cancer, as well as hepatitis B — a serious liver infection that can spread through sexual contact.
- Know your medications and side effects. Discuss medication use and possible vaginal side effects with your doctor.
- Limit alcohol intake and do not smoke. Alcohol abuse can negatively affect sexual function. Nicotine might inhibit sexual arousal. Substance abuse might also cause poor physical and mental health, which can affect sexual function.
Get Regular Checkups
Poor vaginal health or medical issues can be prevented, regular checkups can help ensure that problems are diagnosed as soon as possible. Don’t allow embarrassment to prevent you from talking to your doctor about any concerns you might have about your vaginal health. What you may perceive as embarrassing is something that your doctor sees regularly, so never be afraid to speak up. Request an appointment or call our offices today at 770.720.7733.