How to take care of your vaginal health

How to take care of your vaginal health

Doctors say women tend to be quite careless when it comes to maintaining proper vaginal health, which is crucial for their overall well-being. A basic understanding of how to keep your vagina in the pink of health is imperative. So while you shave, wax, bleach or vajazzle your lady parts, let's stick to some basic steps to maintaining hygiene.


Age matters

According to medical experts, steps to maintaining vaginal health would vary with each age group. Before charting a course of action, gynaecologists would broadly divide women into three age groups - pre-puberty young girls, sexually active women (roughly between 25 years and 45 years) and mature women who are going through or have undergone menopause.

Awareness about vaginal health should start right from childhood. Often young girls would contract various kinds of vaginal infection, mainly because of poor hygiene or a lack of awareness about it. Doctors say that it's essential that women teach their young daughters how to clean their vaginas after urinating or while having a bath, they add. Cleaning with just a plain soap and water would do. Once a girl reaches puberty, a kind of self-cleaning mechanism sets in, according to doctors. "When a girl gets her period, oestrogen comes from the ovaries and it helps in the self-cleaning process by producing lactic acid," says Dr Jayanta Gupta, a senior consultant (gynaecology and obstetrics), based in Kolkata.

Sexually active women must remember to wash their vaginas after intercourse. And they must absolutely ensure that their male partners use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases including HPV infection. Unfortunately, female condoms are not available in India. Safe sex has to be practised if you are to maintain vaginal health and hygiene. A thorough genital wash is recommended before and after intercourse for both the partners, according to health experts.

Doctors say that most teenagers are sexually active these days and they can be opting for multiple partners. "Often they are not aware of contraceptives and are vulnerable to STDs. Sometimes sexually transmitted diseases would present themselves through vaginal discharge," says Dr Sujata Datta, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician.

Mature women who have undergone menopause would require a different regimen for their vaginal health. "This is because around this age, oestrogen levels tend to subside, vaginal skin gets thinner and becomes prone to infection and bruising during intercourse because of a lack of lubrication," says Dr Gupta. "So this is a case of vaginal dryness along with vaginal irritation. You should consult a doctor. Often a local application of oestrogen cream is prescribed, depending on individual cases."


Common infections

According to Dr Datta, one of the most common complaints is getting rashes around the vulva. This is caused mainly by the friction between the skin and sanitary towels. "Women need to be aware of the appropriate use of sanitary napkins. Change frequently - at least thrice a day during your periods, depending on the flow - to avoid rashes and other kinds of discomfort," she says.

Often diabetes in mature women leads to infections such as candidiasis or thrush. It’s also commonly called yeast infection. "Basically, it’s a fungal infection which involves getting curdy white discharge and vulval itching," says Dr Gupta. In this case, you have to immediately consult your gynaecologist.

Another common infection is bacterial vaginosis - it is more of an inflammation though. "This is not really a sexually transmitted infection, but may occur because of low hygiene or low immunity," says Dr Gupta. "In this case, the local bacterial flora in the vagina is changed. Normally the flora contains lactobacilli or good bacteria which helps maintain the pH balance (how acidic the vagina is). Sometimes, because of heavy medication or anti-biotic doses, the lactobacilli-producing bacteria get killed and the other less benevolent forms of bacteria start colonising the vagina." For bacterial vaginosis, one should seek medical attention whereby an anti-biotic course would be prescribed.

Trichomoniasis is another infection caused by a parasite called T Vaginalis. This infection is sexually transmitted. "Whenever a woman contracts this, her partner should be also be treated because it's coming from him," says Dr Gupta. "Otherwise there could be a relapse."


Busting vaginal health myths

Often women get themselves in a tizzy over vaginal secretions or discharge. Medical experts say that it's a myth that copious white discharge is always associated with STDs. But the fact is that such discharge is not really abnormal in girls or young women unless it has strong smell accompanied by soreness and itchiness around the area or if there is excessive discharge. "What happens is that with menarche or onset of puberty, hormones get active and this may lead to vaginal secretions. This is purely physiological - women need not fret over this," says Dr Sujata Datta. "Women should be educated about distinguishing between normal discharge and infective discharge."

There seems to be misconceptions galore regarding deodorising the vagina. Well, we cannot perhaps expect the vagina to smell like flowers in the meadow - it's not meant to be! If there is a very strong odour, consultation with a doctor is recommended, instead of covering it up with deos and other perfumes available in the market. "Please avoid products with added perfumes while washing your vagina," recommends Dr Datta.

Several female hygiene products are available in the market these days. Medical experts say one should opt for only those products that contain lactic acid that prevents bad bacteria from taking over.


Cancer risk

"Cervical cancer is definitely linked to genital hygiene," says Dr Partha Basu, gynaecological oncologist associated with National Health Mission programmes regarding HPV vaccination and screening. Apart from regular check-ups women, especially after the age of 30, should go for Pap Smear screening tests once in three years, he says. If a woman gets a foul-smelling discharge or irregular vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause, medical attention is immediately required.


Natural foods that keep vagina healthy

Natural yogurt: Natural probiotics are recommended when it comes to maintaining the slightly acidic pH levels within the vagina. Natural yogurt is known for keeping the gut healthy by facilitating digestion and providing good bacteria to the system. It can also keep yeast infections at bay. Health experts say the good bacteria in yogurt helps fight candida infection, one of the most common causes of vaginal odour, thereby, restoring normal vaginal pH levels. Dieticians suggest that you consume two cups of unsweetened, plain yogurt every day.

Water: In order to function well, it needs to stay hydrated and drinking lots of water is the simplest solution. Remember, good hydration also means good lubrication. Water can also do away with the odour down there.

Leafy vegetables and citrus fruits: Iron-rich leafy greens such as spinach, cabbage and kale help in improving the blood circulation in the vagina, thereby preventing dryness. Fruits such as lemons, oranges and lime provide the required amount of Vitamin C, which fights bacterial infection.

Nuts: Snacking on nuts not only keep you in great shape but also keep your lady parts happy. Almonds and peanuts are rich in Vitamin E and they can make the vaginal walls and muscles strong. Vitamin E also combats dryness by hydrating vagina's mucous membranes.

Cranberry juice: Some studies say that this acidic juice has positive effects on the bladder and can balance the pH levels of the vaginal area. This can also ward off and provide relief from symptoms of urinary tract infections (UTIs).


Home remedies

Here are some common ingredients, which can be useful in keeping your vagina healthy:

Apple cider vinegar (ACV): ACV's antibacterial and antiseptic properties can fight the toxins, yeast and bacteria that cause vaginal infections. Besides, ACVs helps re-balance and restore vaginal flora. Add two cups of ACV to a bathtub filled with warm water. Soak in it for about 15 to 20 minutes. Or you can add one cup of ACV to a bucket filled with warm water and wash your vagina with it. Do this once a day.

Extra-virgin coconut oil: Coconut oil is feted for its anti-fungal, anti-viral, antibacterial and moisturising properties, all of which help in reducing itchiness and inflammation. Additionally, regular application of this oil can curb the growth of yeast. After you’ve washed and wiped the affected area thoroughly, apply some coconut oil over the affected area and leave for about 20 to 30 minutes. Do this three times every day.

Aloe vera gel: Needs no introduction. The gel's moisturising properties help ease any dryness or inflammation, bringing immediate relief. Furthermore, the anti-fungal, ant-microbial and antiseptic properties of this plant can help curb the overgrowth of any infection-causing fungi or bacteria. Apply a thin layer of freshly extracted aloe vera gel over the affected area and let dry naturally. Wash with warm water and wipe dry. Do this at least twice every day.


Dos and don'ts

A clean vagina is a healthy vagina. Wear cotton underwear. If you must wear thongs, make sure they’re cotton too, especially in summers. And go commando at night. This is because sometimes, your underwear is not made of moisture-absorbent fabric. Keeping the area covered constantly can cause moisture to collect there, making it a breeding ground for yeast or bacteria. So avoid wearing underwear while you sleep - let it breathe. Also, do NOT reuse worn underwear. Make sure you have clean underwear every day.

Wipe off each time you pee. Doctors say that you must wipe from front to back, as this makes you more susceptible to UTIs.

If you suffer from vaginal dryness and have to use a lube, opt for a water-based one as that can keep skin irritation at bay.

Doctors say that do not try to go to vaginal sex right after anal without changing condoms or properly washing the area first. If you do from back to front, you are exposing the organ to a host of bacteria and infections.

Do Kegel exercises regularly. Also known as the pelvic floor exercise, Kegels strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor muscles support the womb, the bladder, and the bowels. Kegel exercises also ensure a stronger libido and a greater ability to have mammoth orgasms.

Avoid going completely bald down there. Pubic hair protects your vagina from various infections. Completely shaving it can leave your vagina more susceptible to all kinds of problems. We’re not saying that it isn’t important to maintain a hygiene routine for your vagina, but there is middle ground between all bald and all natural. Neatly trim your pubic hair instead of completely removing it to keep your vagina healthy, happy and safe.

Medical experts say that antibiotics can be a veritable threat to your lady parts. This is because some of them can kill the good bacteria in the region - yes, there are good bacteria, crucial for vaginal health. In other words, pills can destroy some beneficial lactobacilli. The solution: load up on probiotics.

Avoid decoration at all costs. You must have heard about beautification treatments such as vajazzling. Some even use crystals, using glue or otherwise, to deck those parts up. If you opt for such processes, then you could be ruining your sensitive parts in many ways! For instance, applying glue to a freshly epilated skin can attract infections. Also, if loose crystals enter the vagina, they can reach the urethra or cervix and cause you insurmountable harm.

Have heard of glitter bombs? To the uninitiated, these are suppositories that can be inserted in your vagina. Why would one do that? So that one can get a sparkly vaginal discharge! Experts say that if these are inserted an hour before sex, it dissolves within to release sparkling fluids and dust! Watch out, experts say, it can severely irritate your vaginal walls and cause an adverse reaction. It would also raise the risk of infections down there.

Should you use vaginal washes and wipes regularly? No. As doctors never fail to point out, your vagina has a self-cleaning mechanism - in other words, it can clean itself and does not need wipes and washes. The latter can just kill all the good bacteria and leave you prone to yeast infections. They are only safe to be used externally.

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