We spoke to experts about common vaginal health problems, what the symptoms are, how to treat them and, perhaps most importantly, how to prevent them.
We’ve all heard the saying: “Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven.” But what happens when the oven goes haywire? If you’re having vaginal health problems it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a sexually transmitted disease. In fact, things like urinary tract infections and yeast infections can simply be the result of poor eating habits or improper cleaning. Left untreated, these normally uncomplicated vaginal health issues can become life-threatening.
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
In popular culture, UTIs have somehow become synonymous with promiscuity — the more sex you have, the thinking goes, the more likely you are to have a urinary tract infection. UTIs are not sexually transmitted diseases because they’re not transmitted via sexual partner. Rather, they may occur as a natural consequence of sex.
“A UTI, in case you don’t know, is not a college online. It is a urinary tract infection,” comedian Amy Schumer said in her 2015 stand up special, Live at the Apollo. “I just got my first UTI at 33 and nobody tells you how embarrassing it’s going to be. Nobody’s like, ‘How’d you get it?’ You know how I got it. I had sex and then I was too lazy to pee right after.”
Schumer was actually right. Urinary tract infections are the second most common type of infection in the body and, according to Mayo Clinic, can be avoided by emptying your bladder soon after intercourse. Dehydration, improper wiping, and irritating feminine products may also contribute to infection. Symptoms include pain while urinating, strong odor, and pain in your back side below your ribs. Women are at higher risk of UTIs than men. This has to do with the sensitivity of the vulva skin.
“Sex always causes little tears in the vulva, especially in the thin, vulnerable skin at the bottom of the vaginal opening,” Dr. Nicole Prause, sexual psychophysiologist and founder of Liberos, an independent research institute, told Culture Trip. “To avoid more painful tears or having pain that lasts between sessions, slow sex with less penetration movement can reduce these tears. Don’t make me say ‘lube,’ too. Everybody ought to know that one by now.”
As far as treatment goes, antibiotics are the most common treatment for a simple UTI. Your friends and family may recommend drinking cranberry juice, but claims that cranberry juice help prevent or treat a urinary tract infection are largely unsubstantiated.
Yeast and/or Bacterial Infection
Have you read the story of the woman who made bread from her vaginal yeast? It sounds disgusting, yes. But British blogger Zoe Stavri really (allegedly) did it.
“It tasted like a pretty damn nice sourdough bread. Not the tangiest sourdough I’ve ever eaten, but solidly tasty…I really, really liked it,” Stavri wrote. “After having a little bite, I ate a slice with butter. The bread was still slightly warm and the butter soaked in and it was absolutely heavenly.”
— Another Angry Woman (@stavvers) November 25, 2015
“It’s a much safer bet to wear underwear, because underwear catches the vaginal moisture that yeast and bacteria love so much,” Dr. Burch said. “Cotton is ideal for preventing infection. Thongs can also be problematic, because bacteria from the anus can travel to the vagina and cause UTIs or vaginal bacterial infections.”
Yeast infections can be transferred to the mouth and genitals through sexual contact, but diabetes, impaired immune system, and antibiotic use can also cause an overproduction of yeast. Treatments for vaginal infections include oral and topical medication, depending on severity and complexity of the infection.
Pubic Hair-Related Issues
Have you ever heard the phrase “more cushion for the pushin’?” Well, pubic hair serves the explicit purpose of protecting your vagina from disease and cushioning against excessive friction. Bare and trimmed pubes are in style, but they may not be the healthiest option for your vagina. A recent study of 14,000 people found a correlation between pubic hair grooming and sexually transmitted infections.
Without pubic hair, you put yourself at risk of not only STDs but also skin irritation, sweaty odor, and viral infections. Persistent ingrown hairs are also a problem, particularly for those who shave or wax.
And, if for no other reason, as actress Cameron Diaz points out in The Body Book, keep your pubes for the future aesthetic: “Let’s be honest: just like every other part of your body, your labia majora is not immune to gravity,” she wrote. “Do you really want a hairless vagina for the rest of your life?”
The best thing you can do for your vagina is live a healthy life. Dr. Ryan Welter, CEO of Regeneris Medical and Clinical Associate Professor at Brown University, tells Culture Trip, “Good vaginal health begins with good eating habits. Have a well balanced diet, low in sugar to help develop good vaginal flora and prevent yeast growth. Clean with soap and water and avoid too many unnecessary products which can actually harm healthy bacteria.”
It’s just that simple.