Health is so important, and understanding how to take care of yourself to be at your best really does matter. But everything you read, see on TV, or hear from your family or friends isn’t necessarily true. It’s (probably) not that people are trying to intentionally mislead you, it’s just that there are lots of opinions out there, and lots of things that people may have learned from their own family and friends that aren’t exactly right. So, to get to the bottom of what people need to know about vaginal (and vulvar) health (arguably one of the topics we keep most off limits), we turned to two doctors to explain what you might be doing thinking it’s A-OK, but that you really, really shouldn’t be.
1. Using too many products
If you’re using a lot of products in an attempt to clean yourself down there, you might actually not be helping as much as you’d think.
“Our American culture offers douches, sprays, and deodorants; but often these are unnecessary,” Dr. Lauren Demosthenes, MD, an OB-GYN and the senior medical director with Babyscripts, said. “The remarkable human body has its own cleansing mechanism and at puberty, the hormone changes cause the vagina to begin producing discharge. This is usually clear to white and the consistency varies throughout the cycle.”
There’s no need to do anything out of the ordinary to try to clean your vagina. It can take care of that all on it’s own.
“Douching and cleansing of the vagina are not necessary and can interrupt normal vaginal health and actually increase the chance of real infections,” Demosthenes added. So it really may be best to avoid adding in those extra products—you might otherwise end up with exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
Instead, Dr. Kelly Treder, MD, MPH, an instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, said that you should simply wash with warm water and your fingertips, avoiding any soaps that include dyes or fragrances (you can just ditch the soap altogether for this).
2. Ignoring itching, odor, or discharge
Though some discharge is normal, if you’re dealing with more of it than usual or it’s otherwise changed (in color, odor, or anything else), that’s one sign that you may need to have a chat with your healthcare provider. According to Treder, discharge, itching, and odor could be telling you that something is amiss.
“These can be signs of a sexually transmitted infection, bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection,” Treder said.
Those are things that need to be taken care of right away, so don’t put off that conversation. You might feel like it’s embarrassing to bring up, but it’s worth it.
“For those who have frequent itching, odor or discharge—avoid perfumes, dyes, and fragrances in your laundry detergents (wash your underwear separately if you like to use a fragranced detergent for the rest of your clothing); wear cotton only underwear; skip underwear at night and give the vagina a chance to breathe,” Treder suggested.
3. Not knowing what’s normal and what’s not
Knowing what’s normal for you is important for so many health-related things. While some developments might set off immediate alarm bells for you, other changes might be things that you just brush off. Plenty of things about your body that might worry you can be totally normal, so you don’t necessarily need to panic about anything you think is off or different.
“A good thing that a woman can do, however, is to educate herself and actually look at her genitalia with a mirror,” Demosthenes said. “A health care provider can help educate a woman about how to do this so that women can be more attuned to changes that might be of concern. A raised bump, itching, bleeding, and color changes are just some of the things that women can become aware of. Some of the worrisome things that can occur in the vulva and vagina are infections, pre-cancers, cancers, and painful cysts—so we don’t want women to ignore symptoms that might require treatment and care.”
Plenty of things about your body that might worry you can be totally normal, so you don’t necessarily need to panic about anything you think is off or different. But telling your doctor about changes and having an idea of what’s normal for you can help you address any potential problems as soon as possible, while reassuring you about things that are no big deal.
4. Opting for over-the-counter treatments
Over-the-counter treatments might be tempting (they’re easier to get your hands on and don’t require you to fit in time for an appointment), but they’re not always the best way to go.
“While some people know when they have a yeast infection and know that over-the-counter treatments work well for them, sometimes vaginal itching or discharge could be a sign of something else—like a sexually transmitted infection or bacterial vaginosis,” Treder explained. “Those aren’t treated with over-the-counter medications and require testing and a prescription from a provider. If you do choose to use an over-the-counter treatment, schedule an appointment to be seen by a gynecologist if your symptoms don’t go away or if they get better, but come right back.”
Since you may or may not know for sure what’s causing your symptoms or discomfort, getting a professional opinion can get you on the path to feeling better sooner rather than later.
5. Not asking questions when necessary
Ultimately, though there’s a lot you know about your body, there’s also probably plenty you don’t know—and that’s nothing about which you should be ashamed. Your healthcare providers are there to help you navigate all things health-related. Ask plenty of questions if there’s something you’re unsure about or just want to better understand.
“The bottom line is that the vulva and vagina come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of odor and discharge,” Demosthenes said. “Yes, some things are annoying and can be managed, but just understanding and embracing normal might be the best thing to do. The second bottom line is to become educated and ask questions when changed do occur.”
As Treder pointed out, your vaginal health can impact more than just your physical health—it matters for emotional and sexual health as well. So checking in with your provider, bringing up anything and everything that could indicate something’s going on, and asking questions when you need to can help you stay as healthy as possible—and help them help you do that.
Please consult a doctor before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.