Happy V-Day: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Vagina
Down there, decade by decade
The vagina. It’s one of our most precious parts—so why don’t we talk it up more? Sure, we’ll swap notes with girlfriends about the size or sag of our boobs. But when it comes to that area of our anatomy, we keep our questions to ourselves. What’s normal looks-wise? How’s my scent? Should I be grooming less... or more? How can I tell if everything’s in good working order?
Wonder no more: We went straight to those in the know and got their candid answers to your most private concerns. Here's the ultimate owner’s manual.
Your 20s: What’s going on
Thanks to high estrogen levels, your vagina lubricates easily, and you’ve got lots of sexual energy. “You might be getting it on until 3 a.m., and when you wake up four hours later, you’re ready to go again,” says Lissa Rankin, MD, author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. During this randy phase of life, you may be exposed to multiple sex partners, making you more at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Your 20s: Keeping it healthy
Using condoms correctly and consistently is crucial, even if you are using other forms of birth control. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), talk to your doctor and find out if it makes sense for you to get the shot, which protects against the types of genital HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer.
Whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, you should be getting a Pap smear every two years, starting at age 21 (even if you’re not sexually active). If you’re 25 or younger, you should be screened for chlamydia annually; ask your gyno how often you should be tested for other STIs, including HIV.
Your 30s: What’s going on
With greater sexual experience comes greater confidence: “Chances are, by your 30s, you’ve experimented with what works and what doesn’t, and you know how to play your instrument like Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello,” Dr. Rankin says. Pregnancy and childbirth may make your vagina feel looser (as well as increase your chances of urinary incontinence).
Your 30s: Keeping it healthy
Doing Kegel exercises, which strengthen the pelvic-floor muscles, may help minimize leakage problems—bonus: they can give orgasms extra oomph, too.
If you’ve had three consecutive negative Pap smears, you can start getting them once every three years. You can also ask your doc about getting an HPV test along with your Pap; the combo (also known as DNA with Pap) may be a more effective cervical cancer screening tool than Pap alone in women over 30.
Your 30s: If you're pregnant
If you’re in a committed long-term relationship, you may be able to pass up condoms and explore other birth control options.
Though screenings for STIs are not routine at this age, if you’re pregnant, your obstetrician may test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and hepatitis B at your first prenatal visit, says Jennifer Gunter, MD, an OB-GYN and director of pelvic pain and vulvovaginal disorders at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.
Your 40s: What’s going on
If your baby-making 30s left you with little time for lovemaking, good news: less time spent chasing after little ones can help restore your interest in and energy for sex. You’ve also got fewer hang-ups about asking for what you want in bed. Toward the late-40s, pubic hairs may go a bit gray, and you may notice vaginal dryness as estrogen begins to ebb.
Your 40s: Keeping it healthy
"One of the fastest growing groups developing STIs is women over 40, because so many are out dating again,” Dr. Gunter says. If you fit this profile, be sure to ask your doctor about resuming screening for STIs. All women should continue getting Pap smears every three years (more frequently if you’ve had an abnormal Pap). And though your cycle may become more irregular, be sure to keep using birth control—until you’ve completed menopause (12 months without a period), you should assume that you can still get pregnant.
Your 50s+: What’s going on
You may notice your pubic hair thinning. Also, as you age, your vulva’s exterior lips gradually lose their fat pads, and the inner lips lose their once-plumping collagen. Lack of estrogen postmenopause makes vaginal tissues thinner and dryer, so your vagina starts to resemble a delicate silk sleeve rather than a stretchy velvet one, making it more prone to irritation. Using a lube can help make sex go smoothly.
Your 50s+: Keeping it healthy
If dryness and itching are a big problem, ask your doctor about ultra-low-dose estrogen rings, which are inserted vaginally, restore moisture back to the vagina, and—unlike traditional estrogen therapy—stand a very low risk of being absorbed systemically. (Other options include tablets or creams.)
If you’ve had your cervix removed as part of a hysterectomy, you may no longer need Pap smears if the surgery was done for noncancerous reasons and if you don’t have a history of abnormal Pap smears. You may also be able to stop getting Pap smears after age 65 if you’ve had three or more normal Paps in a row. (But this doesn’t mean you should blow off annual gyno visits.)