Recently, I asked the staff at one of our health centers for a story that highlighted a myth about vaginas. They cited a recent story in which a patient came in complaining of vaginal discharge and, once diagnosed with a yeast infection, was convinced it was because she worked in a bakery. Yeast … around you … yes, we get the idea. But no, unless one places a baked good into the vagina, the chances the infection came from a yeasty treat are null and void.
We might chuckle a little at the sticker shock of such seemingly silly logic, but we realize the societal truth that vaginal discharge, along with many other reproductive health issues, is not usually a hot topic in people’s everyday lives. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment surrounding vaginal care, so let me clear a few things up.
Having worked for Planned Parenthood for close to four years, here are a few things I wish I could scream from the rooftops for every vagina-carrying human to hear:
1. Douching is bad for you and can cause the symptoms you’re trying to avoid!
We’ve all seen the boxes of Summer’s Eve tucked between the maxi-pads and pregnancy tests on our local pharmacy shelves. I’ve even seen advertisements that suggest vaginal douching will give a woman the confidence she needs to ask for a raise at work (what the hell?) I’ve heard women say their mothers douched, so they do it themselves. They’ve heard it makes them clean, or that it makes them smell good (with blatant implication that the natural odor is foul). Some do it every so often, while others integrate it into their sexual health routine more frequently. Regardless of the frequency of douching, please do yourself a favor and STOP! Douching, specifically with any agents that contain a fragrance, can drastically alter the natural balance of vaginal flora and acidity needed to self-regulate. Women who douche frequently are more susceptible to vaginal irritation, bacterial vaginosis, STIs, yeast infection or Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Same can be true for scented soaps and tampons … your temple smells fine the way it is, keep the perfumes outta there!
(**In some rare instances a medical professional may advise douching with water or other banal substance, in which case err on the side of your trusted health care advisor).
2. Healthy vaginas do not smell like fish or any other aquatic sea life!
There is a cultural myth that vaginas smell bad, specifically “fishy.” This myth has been further circulated within our society by some pretty off-color jokes (a blind man and a fish market…) which, while funny to those telling it, can often lead to reinforcing insecurities within women about their bodies. In a culture as dually sexually repressed and exploited as ours, it’s no wonder that this notion reigns “true” in the public arena. I can’t think of anyone else beside my P.P. family who would go toe to toe to argue the damaging ramifications of such a sexist joke as the punch line is delivered, so how else do we stop these dangerous lies from spreading? My thought is: education.
3. Vaginas are independent: When left alone they can clean and manage themselves just fine!
The Vagina, as stated, is a self-sustaining organ that naturally produces bacteria and acids that cleans itself. It also produces a clear or whitish, generally odorless (sometimes acidic), itchless discharge that can increase and decrease in quantity as the menstrual cycle (28 days) changes. If you’re on a hormonal birth control method, your discharge may differ when on it from your non-hormonal cycles, as ovulation (releasing of the egg from the ovary) may increase discharge for a few days. Sexual arousal can also increase vaginal discharge, as your vagina naturally lubricates (though adding a fragrance-free water-based lubricant can help prevent tearing of condoms).
4. At the end of 6-8 hours, take out your tampon!
Too often a woman will come into our health centers complaining about a terrible vaginal odor, only to have the clinician remove days, weeks, or even months old tampon remnants. We call these “impacted tampons,” and they have the potential for some serious consequences, such as incredible odor (we sometimes have to close down the exam room for the day afterward), infection (bacterial vaginosis or pelvic inflammatory disease), toxic shock, or even death! It is so critical to take your tampons out within the time suggested for use on the package label, but also easy to ignore. Here’s a tip: confirm all tampons are out at the end of your period by placing your finger inside your canal and checking!
5. If your vagina smells abnormal, has colored or thick discharge, itches, or is generally out of the norm, head into Planned Parenthood!
So many times we see clients who incorrectly self-diagnose vaginal symptoms, and end up further irritating their condition, or wasting time and money on incorrect treatments. If I had a dollar for every time over-the-counter yeast medication was used on bacterial vaginosis, I’d create a P.S.A. about this topic and launch it during the Super Bowl. Delaying proper treatment of vaginal infections or sexually transmitted infections does not improve your health or save you money. Contrary, it can worsen temporary symptoms or cause irreversible damage to reproductive organs. Often clinicians can write a prescription that has multiple refills, if you are a person with chronic susceptibility to a specific infection, so you don’t have to pay for every visit to the health center (this rule is very specific to your condition, your health history, and the medical discretion of the clinician).
Here are some helpful links to some info about common vaginal infections, and as always, WE’RE HERE FOR YOU!