About vaginal health: Benefits, problems, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment

Dr Louise Hayes Dr Louise Hayes MBBS (Lond.) FRCOG, Consultant in Gynaecology & Women’s Health Published October 13th 2023

A healthy vagina is crucial to any woman’s happiness and wellbeing. Fortunately our vaginas are pretty good at looking after themselves, most of the time. But is there anything you can do to help keep things healthy? And what can go wrong – and what can you do about it?

My vaginal health seems fine – is there anything I should be concerned about?

Probably not. Vaginas aren’t usually any more troublesome than any other part of your body, and so long as you’re looking after yourself, you shouldn’t need to give yours a second thought. Having said which, like any other part of your body, something probably will go wrong sometime.

And it matters. Vaginal problems don’t just cause itching or discomfort. They can affect how you feel about yourself, and about your relationship with your partner. They can affect your sex life, and how much you enjoy it. They can even affect your fertility. Vaginal health issues are rarely medically ‘serious’, but that certainly doesn’t mean they’re trivial.

The good news is that vaginas generally stay healthy with very little effort involved, and if you do run into problems, most are easy to identify, easy to treat, and have no long term consequences.

How do I keep my vagina healthy?

For the most part, vaginal health is part and parcel of good general health. Look after yourself, and your ‘self’ will look after your vagina. A healthy balanced diet, fresh air and a bit of regular exercise, and you’re well on the way.

Some women say particular foods help their vaginal health, like probiotic yogurts, which are said to help maintain the healthy bacteria balance that prevents thrush, or cranberry supplements, to boost resistance to UTIs (urinary tract infections).

Hard scientific evidence for such claims is pretty thin on the ground, but it’s hard to see what harm there could be in trying them to find out whether they’re helpful to you.

Beyond diet and basic exercise, like walking or swimming, more specific tips to help keep your vagina clean and healthy include:

Clean, but don’t douche

Wash daily with warm water. Soap isn’t necessary, but if you’re happier using one, use only the most basic, unscented kind, like Simple or Neutrogena.

Only ever wash your vulva, not your vagina. Cleaning inside your vagina could upset your pH balance and/or kill the ‘friendly bacteria’ that help keep you healthy. Use your fingers rather than a washcloth. Avoid special scrubs or scented soaps – even ones that say they’re designed for vaginal care. And don’t douche. Only wash what you can see.

Don’t try to eradicate smell. Your vagina does have a smell – it’s natural, and healthy. But it shouldn’t smell bad. If you smell anything fishy or otherwise unpleasant, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

Enjoy clean, safe sex

One of the best and easiest ways you can look after your vagina is to avoid exposing it to unsafe sex, so:

  • Use protection. At the most basic level, don’t have sex with a new partner without a condom.
  • Get tested for STIs (sexually transmitted infections) regularly, and certainly after unprotected sex with a new partner.
  • Check ingredients – avoid Vaseline, baby oil, and lubes with glycerine, scents or other additives, and be alert to any itching/irritation that could mean spermicides from condoms are disrupting your ‘healthy balance’.
  • Be smart with toys – be alert to any signs of irritation, and avoid, say, going from anal to vaginal play.

When you’re done, always have a wee if possible – which can help cut your risk of UTIs – and a wipe, or a clean with warm water if you feel the need.

Dress fresh

If you have any issues with your vaginal health, wearing clothes that keep everything airy and fresh can help prevent thrush and other ailments that thrive in moist, warm, airless conditions. Things you can do that could help include:

  • Loose, natural fibres rather than tight, artificial ones – reduces moisture, and discourages ‘bad’ bacteria. Think loose cotton pants, nothing tight and nylon.
  • Be smart after exercise: shower and change after you work out, don’t sit around in clammy gym gear or a damp swimsuit.
  • If you get heavy vaginal discharges, change your underwear twice a day.
  • Don’t wear underwear to bed.

Grooming your pubic hair

Pubic hair is there for a reason – it counteracts friction and dissipates moisture to deny yeasty bacteria the warm, moist environment it prefers.

Trimming, or removing hair along your swimsuit line – fine. But do be careful, and err on the side of minimal – less hair removal means less itching due to regrowth, fewer cuts and scrapes, and fewer irritating infections caused by ingrown hairs.

If you do want to shave or groom, do it right after you’ve bathed or showered, to reduce irritation. And try to use the simplest, most additive-free natural shaving gels and creams you can find. Ask your pharmacist. Don’t use hair removal cream – it’s far too strong to be good for your vulva’s sensitive skin.

Exercise your pelvic floor

If leaking becomes an issue – something that particularly hits many women around pregnancy and childbirth – Kegel exercises can strengthen your pelvic floor and help keep things healthy. There’s plenty of YouTube videos – just search ‘Kegel’ – but in brief:

  • Have a wee, find somewhere comfortable to sit
  • Squeeze/tense your vagina and urethra, doing your best to avoid holding your breath or clenching your bottom, stomach or thigh muscles
  • Hold each squeeze for a count of two…three…four…five

Don’t expect instant results: like all exercise, Kegel takes a while to show what it can do. But after a few months you should really start to feel the difference, and have much less trouble from leaking. Many women report that it improves their enjoyment of sex, and even leads to stronger orgasms – what’s not to like!

Get screened

Regular gynaecological exams play an important part in maintaining your vaginal health.

Your doctor or gynaecologist can spot potential problems before they become big problems, and deal with them while it’s easy and quick. Some women have a ‘mustn’t make a fuss’ mindset, whereas others see regular ‘wellwoman’ checks as part of a normal healthy routine.

Women from around 25 to 65 should in any case have regular cervical screening to detect any issues with their cervix.

Deal with issues straightaway

If you do develop symptoms suggesting something’s wrong, act now.

Many women, resigned to recurrent bouts of, say, thrush, get to recognise the symptoms, and know from past experience what works for them. So they can simply pop to the pharmacist, buy what they need over the counter, and in few days the problem’s gone.
If you follow this route, and everything clears up, obviously that’s fine. But if your symptoms aren’t gone within a week or so, you need to make an appointment to see your doctor, to establish for sure what it is you have, and get to grips with it.

If you have repeated problems with returning thrush, you really need to see someone. Recurrent thrush could suggest unrecognised and/or poorly controlled diabetes, or HIV. A proper check-up can be key to early diagnosis and treatment.

Think about oestrogen

Age brings change, and when you go through the menopause you may find you start to suffer pain during sex, due to lack of lubrication, loss of elasticity and/or thinning vaginal walls. Your vagina also becomes less acidic, bringing increased risk of UTIs. Vaginal oestrogen, available as a cream, tablet or capsule, can help prevent or even reverse the changes due to age. Your doctor or gynaecologist can advise on whether it might be a good option for you.

A healthy vagina should smell, but not smell bad. Every woman has her own smell, and so long as nothing changes, all is well. Anything fishy or otherwise unpleasant, get it checked out.

Your vagina is pretty good at maintaining its own healthy environment, so only clean your labia, not your vagina, which is self-cleaning. Avoid using artificial ‘product’, which could affect your pH balance or even kill your ‘friendly bacteria’ – your best ally against thrush. Keep it simple; many women find warm water, a hand, and a towel to pat dry is all they need.

Any problems you’re not used to and don’t respond quickly to your usual over-the-counter treatment; any vaginal discharge that’s ‘abnormal’ – in appearance, smell or amount; serious discomfort/pain that doesn’t go away quickly: time to call your doctor.

Look after yourself generally, with a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise; be aware of your own body, and respond quickly to any signs of distress; and if you feel you need help, don’t be embarrassed to talk to your doctor or gynaecologist – they won’t be.

Meeting with a professional is always recommended when concerned.

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