It’s Time to Know More About Your Vagina
What is a Vagina?
The vagina is a fibro-muscular (made up of fibrous and muscular tissues) canal leading from the outside of the body to the cervix of the uterus or womb. It is also referred to as the birth canal in the context of pregnancy. The vagina accommodates the male penis during sexual intercourse. Semen containing spermatozoa is ejaculated from the male during orgasm, into the vagina potentially enabling fertilization of the egg cell (ovum) to take place.
What is a Vulva?
The vulva is the outer part of the female genitals (reproductive organs). It consists of all the external parts and tissues which include the mons pubis, pudendal cleft, labia majora, labia minora, Bartholin's glands, clitoris, and vaginal opening.
Why is it important to know the difference?
Popularly, Vagina is the term used for the entire female genitalia while it is just a canal connecting the outside with the inside. The correct term for the external female genitalia is Vulva. This confusion of names may not be a big problem when it comes to general conversation (if people have any!) but, when discussing issues like women's bodies, their personal authority over those bodies and their sexual health knowing the correct terminology is crucial.
Now that we know the basic difference between a vagina and vulva, let’s proceed to know more about different aspects of your vagina that determines the health of your body and especially the female genitalia.
The vagina is self-cleaning, and vaginal discharge plays an important role in keeping the vagina healthy. As puberty hits and oestrogen kicks in, the vagina becomes inhabited with healthy bacteria from the Lactobacillus group which produce lactic acid. This finely balanced vaginal ecosystem is referred to as the vaginal microbiome which provides the acidity of the vagina required to protect it against sexually transmissible infections. Healthy vaginal discharge is made up of fluid from the vaginal walls, mucus from the cervix as well as the lactobacilli. It also has a characteristic smell (in some women this can be stronger due to a large number of sweat glands present in the pubic area.)
The Vaginal Discharge plays a crucial role in maintaining the vaginal pH, lubrication during coitus and in protecting the vagina from harmful bacteria. This takes us to the next point.
Vaginal pH and Its Balance
Before we talk about the vaginal pH, let’s understand what pH is. pH is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline (basic) a substance is. The scale runs from 0 to 14. A pH of less than 7 is considered acidic, and a pH of more than 7 is considered basic or alkaline. Water has a pH7, which is neutral.
What is a normal vaginal pH?
A normal vagina is moderately acidic i.e., the pH level is between 3.8 and 4.5. However, what constitutes a “normal” pH level can vary slightly based on your stage of life. For example, during your reproductive years (ages 15 to 49), your vaginal pH should be below or equal to 4.5. But before menstruation and after menopause, a healthy pH tends to be slightly higher than 4.5.
Why does the vaginal pH matter?
An acidic vaginal environment is protective, as it prevents unhealthy bacteria and yeast from multiplying and causing infections. A high vaginal pH level, above 4.5, provides the perfect environment for unhealthy bacteria to grow which puts you at the risk of various vaginal infections.
Signs and symptoms of an unbalanced vaginal pH
- Foul smell
- Unusual white, grey, or green discharge
- Vaginal itching
- Burning sensation while urinating
Any odour that originates from the vagina can be termed as vaginal odour. It's normal for your vagina to have a slight odour. But, a strong vaginal odour might be abnormal and could indicate a problem.
The abnormal vaginal odour that happens because of infection or any other problem is usually associated with other vaginal signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or discharge.
Vaginal odour may vary throughout your menstrual cycle and may be especially noticeable right after coitus/sex. Certain vaginal infections result in foul odour, while Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection that causes a vaginal odour. Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection that can also lead to vaginal odour. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea infections usually don't cause vaginal odours and neither do yeast infections.
Vaginal Environment and what disrupts it?
Vaginal discharge, vaginal pH and vaginal odour together constitute the Vaginal Environment. The vaginal environment determines the health of the vagina and any serious imbalance in any one of the three will cause disruption in the vaginal environment.
So what causes a serious imbalance in the healthy pH of the vaginal environment?
- Washing it with soap
- Unhealthy Diet
- Wearing Party-liners
- Stepping Out in Dirty Gym Clothes
- Unsafe Sex (Always use Condoms)
- Not Going Commando
It is important to note that doing any one or more of the above things can be a possible reason for vaginal issues and it is best not to self-diagnose. Make an appointment with your gynaecologist in case of irritation, inflammation etc. A change in the healthy vaginal environment can cause Vaginitis.
What is Vaginitis?
Vaginitis is an infection or inflammation of the vagina. It can cause itching and burning, a change in vaginal discharge, and sometimes pain during sex.
- A change in your normal vaginal discharge, including grey, green, or yellow discharge
- Vaginal redness, swelling, itching or pain
- Vaginal odour
- Burning when you urinate
- Pain or bleeding when you have sex
Vaginitis may be caused by bacteria, yeast, or other germs.
The three most common causes of vaginitis are:
- Yeast infection (caused by the excess growth of yeast in the vagina)
- Bacterial vaginosis (caused by the excess growth of bacteria in the vagina)
- Trichomoniasis (a sexually transmitted infection caused by a protozoan)
Another type of vaginitis is Atrophic Vaginitis. This is an irritation of the vagina caused by thinning tissues and less moisture in the vaginal walls. This often occurs with menopause as a result of the decrease in oestrogen hormone.