Assessing Vaginal Health: 5 Clues From Your Vagina

From irregular periods to labia bumps to an itchy vulva, your vagina can clue you into what's going on down there.

Vaginas come in all shapes and sizes. They also have different amounts and types of discharge and even smells. And while scent and discharge can vary a lot from woman to woman, whatever vaginal odor or amount of discharge that is normal for you depending on where you are in your cycle shouldn't suddenly change in a major way.

It's also important to know that no part of your genitalia, from your cervix to your vulva, should itch, hurt, or burn as this is a signal of something "off" in vaginal health. Remember that the vulva includes all the external female genital parts: the labia, the opening to the vagina and urethra, and the clitoris, mons pubis and anus. The cervix is the opening to the uterus. And the vagina is the muscular canal or tube connecting the cervix, at the top of the vagina, with the vulva.

If you do develop a persistent labia itch, for example, or your discharge starts to smell funky, it's time to investigate. It's always wise to see your ob-gyn for a diagnosis. In the meantime, use our vaginal health symptom decoder to find out what your vagina is trying to tell you.

1. Your Vagina Itches

An occasional crotch itch is one thing—you've sweat a lot at the gym, or you ended up with razor burn after shaving.

But a chronically itchy vagina or vulva is a sign that something in the vaginal health spectrum is not right. While the urge to scratch may simply be triggered by an allergic reaction to soap or body wash, it can also be a tip-off to conditions like bacterial vaginosis (which happens when the normal bacteria in the vagina get out of balance), a yeast infection, or the sexually transmitted infection (STI) trichomoniasis.

To find out which of these infections could be behind your itch and then get the right meds to treat it, you'll need some simple tests. That means seeing your healthcare provider, said Michael Cackovic, MD, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "Although most women self-treat with over-the-counter medication, I believe they should see their doctor to find out exactly what is causing their symptoms," he told Health. Treating yourself for the wrong issue can make symptoms worse.

2. Your Vagina Smells Funky

Depending on the time of the month, your choice of clothes, and how hard you sweat, your vaginal odor can be anywhere from mild to pungent. But it should never smell foul or bad, so any change along these lines is worth paying attention to. An unpleasant scent "could be due to something as simple as changing your hygiene regimen or diet," said Dr. Cackovic. "Or it may be something more complicated, like an infection."

Infections like bacterial vaginosis and STIs like trichomoniasis are often the culprits behind odor issues. But don't discount something as simple as forgetting to take out a tampon, which causes bacteria to build up and produce a funky stench.

3. Your Period Is Irregular

Weight loss. Excessive exercise. Crazy stress. Countless things can throw off your cycle and make your periods longer, shorter, or completely MIA. If you can legitimately rule these factors out, however, consider the possibility of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). According to the Office on Women's Health, PCOS is a common, though not-well-understood condition linked to a hormone imbalance. The imbalance creates problems in the ovaries and affects ovulation.

"Women with PCOS do not ovulate regularly," Daniel Breitkopf, MD, chair of the division gynecology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told Health. Without regular ovulation, you won't have a regular period—your flow could come every few months or be absent for several, then show up only to go into hiding again.

Other hallmarks of PCOS include acne and abnormal hair growth on the face, back, or chest. And with your hormones out of whack, it can be harder to become pregnant, so fertility issues are a sign as well. "If symptoms are persisting for more than six to 12 months, then a woman should see her doctor to investigate the cause," said Dr. Breitkopf.

4. Your Vaginal Discharge Changes

If only there was a way to know exactly how much daily discharge is normal and what it should look like to determine good vaginal health. But the fact is, that the amount, consistency, and color of discharge vary widely among women. It also changes depending on where you are in your cycle. According to the National Library of Medicine, discharge can be:

  • Thick, pasty, or thin
  • Clear, cloudy, bloody, white, yellow, or green
  • Odorless or have a bad odor

But a marked change in the color or amount or odor needs to be addressed. The change could be related to hormonal shifts, pregnancy, your hydration level, or an infection, said Dr. Cackovic. Anything added to the discharge like blood, which breaks down to a greenish color, needs to be looked at, he added. A color change can also be a sign of STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. "If it persists beyond a day or two, I think a visit to your doctor is in order," said Dr. Cackovic.

5. Your Labia Are Lumpy or Bumpy

Finding a lump or bump below the belt can be pretty scary. But in most cases, it's totally benign. A small lump under the skin of the vulva or vagina can simply be a pimple or a blocked gland caused by a buildup of fluid. These blockages, or cysts, usually dissolve and go away on their own. If a cyst is accompanied by pain or continues to grow, check in with your healthcare provider, who can drain it if necessary.

Pimple-like bumps or a bumpy red rash on or near your labia may indicate clogged or infected hair follicles, a common side effect of shaving, waxing, or wearing sweaty workout leggings for hours on end. They could also be signs of an allergic reaction, perhaps to a new laundry detergent or body wash. Wait a few weeks to see if the bumps clear on their own, and if not, your healthcare provider should take a look.

Staying on top of these clues to vaginal health will help you ensure that your vagina and other genitalia are in healthy form. Remember that you should always seek out the experience and expertise of your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

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