“Does a healthy vagina have a smell?”
By Catriona Harvey-Jenner
We might be born with them, but the level of confusion among women about what’s ‘normal’ when it comes to the appearance and the health of their vaginas is still unnecessarily high. We’re afraid to talk to one another about what’s normal in case ours might not be, and with that comes a sense of shame to open up.
But it shouldn’t be like that, says Helen Knox, an author and clinical nurse specialising in contraception and sexual health who is currently working with Balance Activ as part of their Intimate Health Taskforce. We should ask these questions so we become better educated about our anatomy and our health. And where better to start than for Helen to answer seven of women’s most commonly asked vagina-related questions?
1. My discharge has changed. Is that normal?
“A slight change in discharge as you go through your monthly cycle is completely normal. Your cycle starts with the first day of your period which will generally last for 4-5 days. After your period has finished, there is often a slight dryness, followed by an increasing amount of vaginal discharge that is usually white in colour. It will then become clear with a stretchy consistency which signals when you’re leading up to ovulation, or your most fertile time of that cycle.
After ovulation, the cervical mucus changes from clear and stretchy in to a dryer, thicker white or creamy type of mucus that sperm can’t swim through. If fertilisation occurs, this thick mucus remains. If no fertilisation occurs, a period is triggered and the whole cycle starts again.
If there’s an additional change to this normal cycle of discharge it could be a sign that something is a little off balance or an infection has occurred. The vagina supports a whole eco system of tiny micro-organisms, existing in perfect balance to keep your vagina healthy. There are many common things that can upset this healthy balance however, like using bubble bath, scented soap, or douches, wearing thongs or tight clothing, or having unprotected sex. This can result in symptoms that will often include a change to your normal vaginal discharge:
- Sometimes it may itch and give you a usually white, thicker and lumpy (like cottage cheese) discharge which is associated with thrush, a common condition caused by an over growth of yeast in the vagina.
- The discharge may be clear or creamy to thickish white, although may be watery but it commonly has a characteristic fishy odour associated with Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) which is caused by an over growth in anaerobic bacteria in the vagina.
- Trichomonas Vaginalis (TV or Trich) is also a cause of abnormal vaginal discharge. Trich is a common STI caused by a parasite that can result in a frothy, greyish or yellowish watery discharge and although many women who have Trich are unaware of any symptoms, it can also be associated with a smell fishy, pain during sex and also pain when going for a wee.
There is a simple symptom checker here which can help to identify symptoms and what may be causing any abnormal discharge.”
2. Does a healthy vagina have a smell?
“Yes, all vaginas have a smell, and that smell will most likely be different from one person to the next. It’s something that many women feel self-conscious about – but it’s completely normal. It can become stronger depending on monthly hormonal changes, or how much you’re sweating, which is also completely normal, but if the smell changes significantly or is noticeably unpleasant then it is best to talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out if there is a problem.
BV, for example, is a very common condition that often causes a fishy smell. It’s caused by an imbalance in the naturally acidic pH in the vagina which results in an imbalance in the natural bacterial balance. This results in a growth of anaerobic bacteria which can cause the unpleasant odour. BV is in fact two times more common than thrush and, like thrush, it can be simply treated with an over the counter treatment.”
3. What’s the healthiest way to keep my vagina clean?
“You really don’t need to clean your vagina. When your vagina is healthy, it maintains itself and there isn’t any need to start using anything to wash internally. Washing around your vulva (the skin around the opening to your vagina) once a day is sufficient as part of your daily cleansing routine – twice, if you must. Don’t use soaps, shower gels, scented soaps or feminine sprays down there as this can disrupt the normal pH and bacterial balance which can trigger conditions like BV and thrush.”
4. Do all vaginas look the same?
“In short, no. All vulvas (the part you can see) as well as all vaginas (the internal part you can’t see) have their own different appearance, shape and size. This will not only vary from person to person but will also vary depending on age, height, weight and experience during childbirth, to name but a few. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ looking vagina.”
5. How can I change the way my vagina looks?
“Each vagina is different and unique. I would always recommend that you learn to love your differences and become comfortable with how you are and look naturally. If there’s something that’s really bothering you or is making you physically uncomfortable then talk to your GP or sexual health nurse for advice.”
6. It feels a little different down there, do I have an STI?
“Generally, if people experience any kind of change in or around their genitals and they are sexually active, they’ll often assume they have an STI.
An STI, or Sexually Transmitted Infection is an infection that is most commonly spread or passed from one partner to the next through unprotected sexual interaction, be that vaginal, anal or oral. Although some STIs can also be spread in other ways, like through sharing sex toys for example. The main cause of many of the most common STIs including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis will be a bacterial infection, however, Trichomoniasis for example, is caused by a parasite, and scabies and pubic lice are caused by little lice and mites. And then there are blood-borne viruses like HIV and Hepatitis A, B and C. The differences in the causes can mean the symptoms will vary greatly as well. However, some of the most common STIs may not even cause symptoms for many people.
Anything that’s unusual in the genital area should be checked carefully but don’t automatically assume it is an STI. It may be something very simple such as thrush or BV which are not STIs but can be triggered by sex. The most important thing is that if you notice any changes please don’t ignore. Go and see your GP, pharmacist or visit the sexual health clinic to get it checked out. The chances are that it’s probably something very common and simple to treat.”
7. Is it normal to have irregular periods?
“Most monthly cycles last for around 28 days but as with most things, everyone is different and a cycle is considered to be normal if it lasts anywhere between 21 and 35 days, sometimes even longer.
A period is considered irregular, if it occurs more frequently than every 21 days, or cycle length varies between a shorter and longer number of days. There are however many things that can affect your cycle and can cause irregular periods. This can include increasing your exercise routine, change in diet, losing or gaining weight in excess or even stress. But ongoing irregular periods can also be a sign of a hormone imbalance which can be linked to polycystic ovary syndrome so it is always best to have it checked out. Spotting between periods or bleeding after sex could also be a sign of some common STIs including chlamydia, so if you experience any changes in your normal cycle – talk to a healthcare professional.
By understanding your own normal and staying in tune with your body it will help you to determine whether you have any issues. If you notice any changes, don’t sit with on-going symptoms wishing them way, discuss them with your Pharmacist who will happily help you, or make an appointment to discuss them with your GP. The chances are it will be something easily treated and managed.”