Vagina: Expectation vs Reality

Guess what? 

Dr. Sherry is back! 

Last month we asked our favorite gyno guru to solve your menstrual cup mysteries, but now it’s time to dive into our most beloved body part - the vagina.

Curious about whether your vagina is the ‘right color’? 

Maybe you’ve been told you have a whole new ‘flavor’ down there. 

And Kegel who? What? 

Not to worry, Dr. Sherry has you covered.

Why does my vagina itch? 

If your vagina itches, you’re not alone. Lots of patients come to me with this complaint. The good news is that it’s rarely serious and very treatable. 

When experiencing an itchy vagina, the first thing you need to do is visit your doctor so they can rule out a bacterial or yeast infection. If you’re in the clear, it’s time to look at other environmental factors that could be causing irritation, such as:

  • Fragranced body washes
  • Laundry soaps
  • Scented sanitary products or wipes
  • Warming gels, scented lubricants or spermicides
  • Nylon underwear
  • Condoms
  • Saliva
  • Semen
  • Stress

Switching to a non-fragranced, hypoallergenic product can beat itching. If it turns out stress is the culprit, your doctor can suggest ways to help you relax. 

Another possible cause of vaginal itching is dryness. Persistent vaginal dryness can cause itching, burning and pain. While these symptoms can be tough to deal with, this is super treatable. 

For instance, keeping the skin hydrated, clean and cared for can help prevent dryness. Some great ways to do this include: 

  • Using a gentle, non-fragranced soap and natural skin moisturizer. Look for ones made specially for the vagina. 
  • Taking a 20-minute warm bath with a handful of extra virgin coconut oil, three to four times a week.
  • Adding oral or vaginal probiotics to your daily routine.

Let’s not forget drinking lots of water. Just like water keeps the body hydrated, it helps to keep the vagina hydrated too. Make sure to drink at least 8 – 8 ounce glasses, or about 2 liters of water a day.  

And then there’s alcohol and caffeine. Make sure you consume both of these in moderation as they both can contribute to dehydration of the body and the skin. 

How should my vagina look? 

First, let’s get clear on what we mean by “vagina”

Many people who talk about their “vagina”, are actually referring to the vulva. Medically speaking, the vagina is only the inside (where menstrual cups go) while the outside is the vulva, labia majora and labia minora. 

If you’re still unsure about which is what, Lunette has an easy-to-follow anatomy guide you can check out – complete with a diagram! 

But for the sake of this question, we’ll refer to it all as the vagina.  

Now back to how it should look. I often hear comments like: “My lips are too big,” “too bumpy,” “too dark,” or “too uneven.” That’s because lots of people think there’s such a thing as a ‘perfect vagina’. But the reality is that no two vaginas are the same. 

The length of the labia varies from person to person, as does the color. Some people may have a pink or purplish labia, while others may be reddish or brown. This is all considered to be completely normal; different IS normal.

Of course, it is possible to have an abnormality. The biggest indicator is when an area of your vagina is uncomfortable. For example, some patients come to me with a labia they need to fold or push up into their vaginal canal to reduce the appearance of excess tissue or to prevent irritation. 

An oversized or enlarged labia can also make running, bicycling, horseback riding, or swimming painful. In severe cases, surgical procedures are available to improve these symptoms.

Have you recently felt some lumps or bumps down there? Grab a small mirror and examine yourself. If you see any sores, spots, redness or skin that looks inflamed, you’ll want to schedule an appointment with your doctor as you might have an infection.

How should my vagina smell? 

Vaginas aren’t meant to smell like a rose garden, but they do have a familiar scent which is far from unpleasant.

Vaginal discharge - which everyone with a vagina experiences - is usually the origin of this scent. It contains healthy bacteria that protect you from infection. 

A healthy discharge will look clear to milky in color and will have a “vagina-like” smell, which can typically be described as slightly sour or musty. The scent and consistency can even change depending on your cycle. For example, you might notice a clear, odorless discharge between periods that can oftentimes be a sign of ovulation.

What can cause the scent of my vagina to change? 

A change in your vagina’s environment can cause your pH level to alter (which is usually around 3.5 to 4.5), affecting the scent and consistency of your discharge. Factors that affect the normal pH balance and the scent of the vagina can include:

  • Antibiotic use
  • Douching
  • Spermicides
  • New sexual partners
  • Sexual intercourse 
  • Sex toys
  • Latex allergy
  • Hormonal imbalances such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause 
  • Vaginal infections including yeast, bacteria, and sexually transmitted infections
  • Lost tampons

If your vagina suddenly has an overpowering smell and you’re also experiencing itching, burning, redness, swelling or vaginal discharge that is white, yellow or grey - this could indicate an infection. In which case, you’d need to see your doctor.

Your doctor will do a series of vaginal cultures to find out if there’s an infection. From there, they’ll be able to prescribe you with the best treatment. Please don’t go straight to the store and buy over-the-counter medication for a yeast infection. This can delay a proper diagnosis and make symptoms worse if you have something else going on.

Persistent vaginal dryness can cause an unusual scent as well. Following my suggestions above will help to fix this pesky problem. 

Your scent may also change because of diet. Major offenders can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Spicy foods
  • Garlic
  • Fermented foods
  • Red meats
  • Sugar
  • Nicotine

Foods that don’t disrupt the delicate pH balance and can combat stronger scents are:

  • Fresh fruits (especially pineapple!)
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Greek yogurt 
  • Water (and lots of it) 

Good hygiene can also keep unpleasant odors at bay. Between urine, sweat and being so close to the anus, cleaning the vagina regularly is critical to prevent bacterial buildup which could lead to acne, pimples and foul smells. 

Is there a certain ‘flavor’ my vagina should have?  

If your partner notices a different taste in your vaginal fluids, I’d suggest looking into your diet. 

Has anything changed? Are you eating more red meat, fruits or vegetables? Or perhaps you’re trying a diet that focuses on one specific food group. 

Rule of thumb: if a certain type of food gives you foul-smelling urine, gas or breath, chances are it will affect the taste and smell of your vagina. 

New medications, especially antibiotics, may also be a factor in taste changes too. 

What are the signs and symptoms of a yeast infection?

All healthy vaginas contain some yeast, but when the natural acidic balance of the vagina is disrupted, this can lead to a yeast overgrowth - also known as a yeast infection.

Symptoms of a yeast infection may include:

  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Painful sex
  • Burning urination
  • A cottage cheese-like discharge 

The longer a yeast infection is left untreated, the nastier the symptoms can become. If you notice any of these symptoms, you’ll want to make sure to visit your doctor before it gets out of hand. With the right treatment, you’ll start feeling better in as little as three days. 

Should I be using a douche? 

Using an over the counter douche or scented feminine cleanser can do more harm than good by disrupting the natural balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina that help to prevent infections. 

Stick to a pH-balancing vaginal wash or wipes a few times a week and let your vagina do the rest when it comes to naturally keeping clean.

What do I need to know about Kegel exercises? 

Kegel exercises can be easily done anywhere - and no one will ever know

First, you need to identify your pelvic floor muscles. You can do this while going to the bathroom. Simply stop the flow of urine midstream and hold it for three seconds, then relax and allow the flow to continue. Repeat this a couple of times and you will have identified your Kegel muscles. 

Now you’re ready to perform Kegel exercise! 

Step one: Empty your bladder and get into a relaxed position.

Step two: Contract your pelvic floor muscles, hold the contraction for five seconds and then relax for another five seconds.

Step three: Repeat four to five times in a row. 

You can even work up to keeping the muscles contracted for 10 seconds at a time and relaxed for 10 seconds between contractions, making sure not to flex the muscles in your abdomen, thighs or buttocks and avoid holding your breath. Instead, breathe freely during these exercises. 

Try to aim for at least three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions a day. 

Important: If you think you may have overactive vaginal muscles, which can sometimes lead to painful sex, check with your doctor before doing Kegel exercises.

Why are Kegel exercises important?

Quite simply, weak pelvic floor muscles, which can be a result of childbirth or aging, can cause:

  • Reduced sensation in the vagina
  • A sensation of heaviness in the vagina
  • Incontinence or leaking of urine when coughing, sneezing, laughing or jogging
  • A bulge at the vaginal opening 

Kegel exercises can help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and stop these unwanted symptoms when done correctly and repeatedly over time. 

They can also make sexual intercourse more enjoyable - and who doesn’t want that? 

Speaking of Sex  

Tune in next month to learn about the wild world of sex with your favorite gyno guru, Dr. Sherry. 

Aww yeah.