Women’s Vaginal Health

A woman’s body is constantly evolving throughout her lifespan. From the pubertal years to menopause and beyond, a woman’s vaginal health is always important. It is essential to understand what is normal and what is necessary to ensure that you nurture and maintain your vaginal health.

Annual Visits

Seeing your OB/GYN yearly can have a positive impact on your health. Experts, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), recommend that women visit their OB/GYN at least once a year to help them stay healthy and prevent problems at all stages of their lives. Regular OB/GYN visits give you and your provider the opportunity to discuss: vaginal health, infection prevention, screening recommendations, sex, birth control, plans for pregnancy, and more.

Your annual well visit typically includes a pelvic exam. Depending on your age, the reason for the visit, and your health history, your doctor will make the decision about whether or not a pelvic exam needs to be completed yearly.

Pelvic exams are conducted to ensure the health of your reproductive organs. According to the ACOG, pelvic exams provide physicians with the ability to better detect treatable conditions and common vaginal or gynecological problems; get a deeper understanding of your body; and provide reassurance about your sexual and reproductive health.

Pap Smears

Your physician may recommend a Pap smear based on one or more factors. The purpose of a Pap smear is to look for abnormal cells of the cervix and/or Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is contracted through sexual exposure. It can cause changes in the cervix and may lead to the development of cancer.

“Young ladies can choose to visit an OB/GYN at any age for education, to discuss concerns, or for birth control consultations, but a pelvic exam with a Pap smear is not always required” explains Vanessa Sidick, CRNP. Routine pelvic exams with Pap smears do not begin until the age of 21, regardless of the patient’s sexual history. This exam is not recommended as soon as a woman becomes sexually active because even when exposed to HPV, the body is often able to clear this virus on its own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that eligible women get the Gardasil vaccination, which protects against HPV and ultimately cervical cancer.

The frequency of Pap tests and the type of testing depends on your age and health history, which may include:

  • Women age 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years;
  • Women in the age range of 30 to 65 years old have options for testing;
    • A pap test with an HPV test every 5 years,
    • Pap test alone every 3 years, or
    • HPV testing alone every 5 years.

After age 65, you can stop having cervical screenings if you have never had abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, and you have had two or three negative screening tests in a row, depending on the type of test. Paps are no longer necessary in women who have had a hysterectomy with removal of their cervix if they have no previous history of abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer.

Common Infections

All women begin to produce vaginal discharge on a daily basis once they begin puberty. Normal vaginal discharge can change throughout your lifetime and menstrual cycle, but generally it can be described as white or transparent, thick or thin, and mostly odorless. Slight changes in discharge are not unusual, but if you begin seeing drastic changes or unusual symptoms you should discuss these changes with your provider as you could have an infection.

One of these infections is called a yeast infection, which is a fungal infection that is the result an overgrowth of yeast within the vaginal canal. Symptoms can often include itching, burning or swelling, and/or a thick white discharge. Because this infection is not bacterial, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. It is treated with oral antifungal medications that can be prescribed by a medical provider or with 7-day over the counter miconazole vaginal cream.

Another common infection is referred to as bacterial vaginosis or BV. This infection is caused by an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria, which is the result of an imbalance of flora and pH. BV is often associated with symptoms such as odor, and/or increased watery, white or gray discharge. Sometimes the body can naturally fight these “bad” bacteria and restore the normal flora balance on its own, but this infection often requires treatment with antibiotics that are prescribed by a medical provider.

Women may also contract sexually transmitted diseases (STD), which are infections that are spread through sexual activity. Symptoms vary with these infections and some STDs may not have any symptoms at all, but some common ones may include: changes in the color of vaginal discharge to yellow or green, burning with urination, vaginal odor, vaginal redness, irritation, swelling, bleeding, and/or pelvic pain. “It is important to note that along with these symptoms, STDs can lead to permanent scarring of the uterus lining, which can lead to future infertility that cannot be reversed” says Vanessa. Regular STD screenings and the use of condoms are incredibly important in helping to protect yourself against STDs.

Maintaining Vaginal Health

“Maintaining vaginal health does not have to be complicated and it is best to keep your hygiene practices simple,” explains Trista McMahon, CRNP. There are steps that you can take to help avoid common infections and vaginal irritation.

Providers often recommend the following:

  • Wear cotton underwear and loose fitting, breathable clothing.
  • Promote vaginal air circulation. The absence of underwear while sleeping can help.
  • Avoid the use of feminine hygiene sprays or scented tampons.
  • Avoid the daily use of panty liners or pads.
  • Unscented mild bar soap and hypoallergenic laundry detergent are recommended for undergarments.
  • Change clothing as soon as possible after exercise or activities that make you sweat.
  • Dry thoroughly after showering and before putting on clothing.
  • Never use douching products, as these can eliminate healthy vaginal flora.
  • Utilize condoms during sex and urinate immediately afterwards.
  • Check with your OB/GYN about preventing yeast infections if you are prescribed antibiotics for another type of infection.

If you are experiencing any abnormal symptoms, having other concerns or are looking for advice on how to maintain your vaginal health, you should see your OB/GYN for a discussion and/or evaluation. If you are looking for a new OB/GYN, make an appointment with St. Clair Medical Group OB/GYN by calling 412.942.1066.