Loving Your Lady Parts: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Vaginas and Vulvas
Posted 4/27/2016 by UHBlog
Women may not realize their vulva and vagina are indicators of their overall health and well-being. But when you're out of sorts “down there,” it can impact your life significantly.
“When your vulvovaginal health is off, the consequences can extend into many areas of your life,” says obstetrician/gynecologist Roya Rezaee, MD. “You might not feel comfortable while sitting, walking or standing because of burning, itching or pain. It can make it difficult to care for your loved ones or have a relationship with your partner.
“Some research even suggests vulvovaginal problems can affect a woman’s self-esteem, keep her from exercising and cause her to become isolated, especially if she thinks she has an odor or fears scratching in public,” she says.
Thanks to the media – or because of it – more women are speaking up, asking questions and taking charge.
If you’re wondering about your vulvovaginal health, here are nine things you might not know:
- Strength matters – The vagina is a muscular canal leading from the vulva to the cervix. Like any muscle, it can grow weak if it’s not exercised.
“Many women only think about their vaginal and pelvic floor muscles around the time of childbirth,” Dr. Rezaee says. “But younger women ought to be educated, too. After all, you run for cardiac health, so you should know what to do keep your vaginal muscles and pelvic floor strong.”
One recommendation is Kegel exercises, but according to Dr. Rezaee, the vast majority of women do them incorrectly.
“They tighten their stomach and buttock muscles instead of learning to contract and isolate the pelvic floor muscles,” she says. Kegels should be done lying on your back or seated. Most women need directed instruction with a pelvic floor therapist to do this exercise correctly.
- It’s not lost up there – Many women think a condom or tampon can get lost or travel further into their abdomen.
“These things can be out of reach – or you may have forgotten you removed it – but nothing can go further into your abdomen,” she says. “Although your vagina is attached to your cervix and part of the reproductive tract, it’s a closed loop. It doesn’t freely allow access into the rest of your body.”
- Moisture and mucus changes throughout the month – The consistency and scent of vaginal discharge changes between your period.
“Some women aren’t aware of their normal physiology because they’ve been on birth control so long,” Dr. Rezaee says. “So they don’t recognize normal changes in their cycle and the impact on their secretions throughout their monthly cycle.”
According to Dr. Rezaee, this has caused some women to think they have a yeast infection. If they decide to self-treat with an over-the-counter product, it can chemically alter their vaginal health and create different issues.
“If your vaginal fluid causes itching or pain, has an odor or is green, gray or bright yellow in color, that’s when you should see your health care provider,” she says.
- It's possible to over wash – “Some women wash or wipe their vulvas two or three times a day with soaps, baby wipes and feminine wipes,” Dr. Rezaee. “It may be hard to understand, but less is more. The human body isn’t meant to be cared for this way.”
Too much washing can lead to dryness and itching of the external organs that make up your vulva.
- Moisturizing is good – Really. Some women “landscape” by removing pubic hair through shaving and waxing. Or, they wash excessively or use harsh soaps. Any of these can cause the skin to become dry.
“If you never moisturized your hands, that skin gets dry and tight,” she says. “Your vulvar skin is like any organ and can dry out.”
Dr. Rezaee recommends using natural emollients, such as olive, sesame or coconut oil, to moisturize the outside of the vulva.
“I tell my patients to try different oils and natural emollients and see what they prefer,” she says. “Many don’t care for olive oil because the scent reminds them of what they eat on their salads.”
- Appearances vary – As more and more women remove their pubic hair, they're scrutinizing their vulva more closely – and asking questions about what they see.
“Each vulva is as different as each face is, and the symmetry and color can vary on the various structures that make up the vulva,” Dr. Rezaee says. For example, just like one breast might be larger than the other, the same is true for your labia. Also, your labia color can change over time.
- Orgasms are taught – Books and movies are misleading women.
“So many women don’t know that an orgasm is something you have to teach your body unless you accidently come across it,” she says. “How you get there requires communication with your partner, but most of all, knowing your body.”
- Pain is not normal – “A woman shouldn’t sit in silence,” she says. “Your pain could be due to many different factors, depending on your age or health issues.” For instance, hormonal-related dryness or medications might be the problem. With cancer patients, a side effect of their treatment can be vaginal atrophy.
Whether its painful sex or soreness in the vulva region, seek treatment, Dr. Rezaee says.
- Beware of pads – Some women have skin reactions to pads and tampons, causing itching and contact dermatitis. Switching to cotton pads can help.
The same is true of pads used for urine and stool incontinence.
“It's almost like a diaper rash because they’re sitting in their urine or feces,” she says. “We have ways we can help women with incontinence get back their health. See us and we can help.”
Roya Rezaee, MD is an obstetrician and gynecologist, medical director, Women's Health Center, and co-director, Sexual Medicine and Vulvovaginal Health Program, at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Rezaee or any other University Hospitals doctor online.