The vagina can be a confusing and mysterious place. So confusing, in fact, that half of young women in the UK can’t actually locate it. Many women confuse the vulva – the external female genitalia – with the internal muscular cavern that is the vagina, and 65% have difficulty using the word ‘vagina’ itself.
Embarrassment and reluctance to talk openly about female sexual health can have very serious consequences. Take cervical cancer as an example: in 2014 alone, 1 million women failed to attend their cervical smear test, overlooking one of the most effective ways of diagnosing a largely preventable women’s cancer.
As much as you try and ignore it, your vagina isn’t going anywhere, and by refusing to acknowledge what it’s up to you may be ignoring some pretty serious health warnings. To help you de-code its messages, we’ve put together a list of common vaginal problems that you might want to watch out for.
How your vagina indicates something is wrong
Many of the sexual health problems women encounter use similar methods of expression. If you notice any of the following, something is probably awry:
- Unusual discharge – this could be a change in colour, smell, or even texture (watch out for a favourite term among medical advisors: ‘cottage cheese’ vaginal discharge)
- The skin of the vulva is irritated or sore
- General vaginal itchiness
- Pain during sex
- Irregular bleeding – be it between periods or after sex
- Lumps, blisters, and swelling on the vulva or anus
- Pain when urinating
Common vaginal problems
These warning signs usually point to one of the following common vaginal problems and infections:
Spread through unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex, Chlamydia often exhibits very few symptoms. However, an unlucky few will experience abnormal vaginal discharge, a burning feeling whilst urinating, and painful sex.
As one of the commonest STIs in the UK, it’s worth getting regularly tested for chlamydia.
Also known as ‘the clap’, gonorrhoea is caused by the spread of gonococcus bacteria via sexual contact. Undesirable symptoms tend to emerged within two weeks of infection, and include painful urination, irregular vaginal bleeding and increased vaginal discharge.
As with Chlamydia, this STI can be identified with the use of a test kit.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. You may find clusters of small lumps around the opening of the vagina and around the vulva – they can sometimes itch or be painful. But genital warts can also occur on the cervix, within the vagina, in and around the anus, and in the general groin area.
Genital warts are caused by two strains of the Human papillomavirus (HPV) and you can protect yourself against contracting them by getting an HPV vaccine.
Unlike genital warts, sores from herpes will definitely hurt. Herpes can appear as blisters or lesions on the vulva or vagina, and will make sex a very painful experience. You may also notice pain when urinating, peculiar discharge and fever symptoms.
Unfortunately, this STI can’t be ‘cured’ as such – only managed. The herpes simplex virus, which is transmitted via sexual contact, will remain in your body for the rest of your life.
This common vaginal infection is caused by a parasite that is transmitted via sexual contact. As with other STIs, women may encounter burning, swelling around the vulva, and pain whilst urinating. As an added bonus, watch out for frothy grey or green vaginal discharge with a strong fishy odour.
Like it or not, the vagina is full of different types of bacteria. Problems arise when the amount of ‘good’ bacteria (lactobacilli) is threatened by other forms of bacteria. In the case of bacterial vaginosis, an invading group of bacteria called Gardnerella is largely to blame.
The most obvious signs of this infection relate to your discharge: it will most likely be grey or white and accompanied by a strong fishy smell. You may also experiencing some vaginal itchiness.
Yeast Infection (Thrush)
Similar to bacterial vaginosis, thrush is the result of an imbalance among the active cultures in your vagina. The culture in question is actually a fungus called candida.
Don’t be alarmed – this species of fungus is native to many women’s vaginas and usually lives in complete harmony. Thrush itself is fairly harmless, although it can cause a lot of discomfort. Since most women in the UK will develop thrush at some point in their lives, it’s definitely worth knowing the warning signs.
If you experience itching, burning, soreness or swelling around the vagina, as well as clumpy white discharge, you probably have a bout of thrush. Luckily, it’s very simply treated with tablets or pessaries.
This one is actually a urinary tract infection (UTI), but since it’s common in sexually active women and displays symptoms similar to some STIs, we’ve decided to include it for clarity.
If you encounter a burning sensation when urinating, an urge to urinate more frequently, and the need to urinate strikes you without warning, you may have cystitis. This occurs when bacteria from the anus works its way up through the urethra and infects the bladder. If untreated, this can spread and infect the kidneys.
Mild cystitis does not always require treatment and may clear up on its own. If your cystitis persists for more than a few days then you should seek medical help – they can prescribe a course of antibiotics.
Sometimes an increased sensitivity in the skin surrounding the vagina is not due to infection at all. Rather, it is an allergic reaction to chemicals introduced into the vaginal region.
This can be down to a range of factors: the perfume present in the hygiene products you use, fabric softeners and detergents, the dyes in your underwear, vaginal douching, tampons, spermicides, lube, and barrier contraceptives such as condoms and diaphragms. Such irritation can be resolved by simply removing the chemicals causing the reaction.
It’s also worth mentioning that your vulva can also be affected by common skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis, which can cause irritation and discomfort.
This occurs when a hair follicle gets blocked and infected. It usually manifests itself as a series of red bumps or small spots around the vulva. Folliculitis in this region mainly occurs as a result of waxing, shaving, and wearing tight non-breathable fabrics (especially if they are dirty).
Cases are usually mild and will clear of their own accord. However, serious infection can be very uncomfortable and could lead to scarring.
How to practice good vaginal health
Sounds daunting, but there are a few things you can do to promote a happy, healthy vagina.
- Don’t douche or use invasive methods when cleaning the vaginal area. Your vagina is actually pretty good at cleaning itself, and introducing irritating products can upset the complex bacterial interactions which keep your pH level consistent. Anything too invasive also carries the risk of pushing an infection further up your reproductive machinery.
- Practice safe, clean sex. Always wear a condom with new sexual partners and make sure you wash any sex toys before and after use (it’s also very important you don’t share these with anyone else). It’s also a good idea to try and urinate after you’ve had sex, to flush out any bacteria around the urethra.
- Take STI tests regularly. This is particularly important if you have had several sexual partners or have ever had unprotected sex. See our online Sexual Health clinic for tests and treatments.
- Consider getting the HPV vaccine. This is offered for free on the NHS to girls under the age of 18. Whilst protecting you against genital warts, this vaccine will also protect you against cervical cancer.
- Avoid wearing clothes that hold in heat and moisture. Leggings, tights and gym gear can create the perfect environment for yeast infections. Non-breathable tight fabrics such as nylon are prime culprits for this, so cotton underwear may be preferable.
- Avoid using strong detergents and soaps. Strongly perfumed bathing products and deodorants can cause irritation to your vaginal area. Also be conscious of the strength of the detergent you’re using to clean your underwear with.
- Be aware of side effects of prescribed antibiotics. The chemical changes involved in taking antibiotics can affect the bacterial balance of your vagina, increasing your chances of developing problems like thrush.