We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: common vaginal health "problems" that are completely normal.
There’s no question this week, because I’ll be answering a bunch of questions that have been coming up again and again in your emails. Yes — you email me and I do my absolute best to respond personally with specific, verified health information in a (somewhat) timely manner. And in these personal emails, I’ve noticed some trends — specifically, lots of you are worried about your vaginas being "not normal." I’m here to tell you right now that the following worries you’ve had, dear readers, are actually totally normal.
Something to remember before we get started: I'm not a doctor. These are generic guidelines about vaginal health that are all true and verified, but I haven't seen specifically what you've got going on, and even if you showed me, I still wouldn't be able to diagnose you because, like I said, I'm not an OBGYN. So if you feel something's off, by all means, go see your doctor! She'll tell you what's up.
1. “Why Does My Vagina Smell Bad?”
Many of the questions I get come from readers who worry that their vaginas smell bad. This worry can lead to personal stress and embarrassment, and even in some cases, people not having as much sex as they want to because they feel their smell is too disruptive to the sexy vibe.
The reality is that vaginas smell. This makes sense if you think about it — many of our bodily fluids have some sort of smell. Yes, vaginas have a smell, and that smell fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle. Your most intense vaginal odor is often during your period, as well as when you sweat. This is all completely normal.
If you are experiencing strong vaginal odor that’s annoying or stressful to you, you should go to a doctor to make sure that you don’t have bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis, because these can cause unhealthy vaginal odor. But if you don’t have anything medical going on, that means this is just your vagina’s natural scent.
If that perturbs you, there are some things you can do to lessen it. You can wash your vulva and labia with water and unscented soap. Please don’t use scented soaps, vaginal deodorants, or douches — these can cause vaginal infection and increased odor (counterintuitive right?). Also make sure you’re not leaving tampons in for a long period of time, because they are tiny sponges that retain smell. You can wear cotton panties to air yourself out down there so you don’t get sweaty. Finally, if you're really concerned, some foods that have strong smells can intensify your vaginal scent. These include coffee, onions, garlic, strong spices, dairy, and meat.
When To See A Doctor: If you notice that your vagina has started to smell a lot all of a sudden, particularly if it smells extremely intense or rotten. You should also see a doctor if you notice a change in smell accompanied by other symptoms, such as itchiness or changes in vaginal discharge.
2. “Why Do I Discharge So Much?”
Vaginal discharge is a really important part of reproductive health. The fluid that comes from glands within your vagina and cervix and flows out onto your panties is actually a cleaning agent — as it exits your premises, it clears away bacteria and dead cells, thereby keeping your vagina squeaky clean and infection-free.
Vaginal discharge fluctuates normally throughout your menstrual cycle. It can range from no color at all to a milky white. The amount you discharge can change based on things like stress, ovulation, pregnancy, and of course, being turned on. The amount can also fluctuate during your life.
Hormonal birth control containing estrogen gradually increases how much discharge your body makes, so that could also be what’s going on. You may also have forgotten a tampon up there (hey, nobody’s perfect) and your body is trying to eject it through a home grown slip’n’slide.
However, you could also just be a human who discharges more. If this stresses you out, you might consider wearing cotton panties to air out your vagina so the discharge dries more quickly. Just be careful of wearing pads or tampons all the time to “catch” the flow — while they may keep your undies clean, they don’t dry out very fast and can cause infection by maintaining just the sort of wet, warm environment bacteria enjoy.
When To See A Doctor: While discharge is indeed normal, a sudden change can also signal that something’s going wrong down there. If you notice that your discharge changes in amount, texture, or color all of the sudden — particularly if it's accompanied by changes in vaginal odor or other unpleasant symptoms like itchiness or redness in your vaginal area — you'll want to see the doctor.
3. “Why Is It So Hard For Me To Get Wet?”
Some people have the opposite "problem" and experience vaginal dryness — 40 percent of women in the United States, in fact. If you have a dry pussy (which can happen all the time or just sometimes), you may also experience itchiness, burning, mild bleeding and pain during sex due to chafing or tearing of the vaginal lining and frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs). Not fun!
Reasons for why this may be happening to you include low levels of estrogen, because estrogen is the primary maintainer of your vaginal lubrication; some medications including antihistamines, asthma medications, and anti-estrogen medications; the autoimmune disorder Sjögren's syndrome, which is rare but does exist; and even irritants like douches, soaps, and lubricants that have perfume in them. Finally, you could just not be turned on enough, which is totally normal — some people need a lot of time and foreplay before penetration to get excited enough for their bodies to help them out with lubrication.
If you’re dry down there, use lube, and practice good communication with your sexual partners, because a dry vagina can be very painful! Which is the opposite of what sex should feel like (unless that’s what you’re into — then by all means, please continue).
When To See A Doctor: If your vaginal dryness is disrupting your life and lubrication isn't helping. Or if you're on medications listed above that could cause dryness and you want to change them.
4. "How Do I Stop Squirting?"
Some people with vaginas ejaculate during sex. Anywhere from 10 and 69 percent of women report it, if we’re counting (which we are, because numbers are reassuring). Female ejaculate is not urine (seriously, let’s set that ridiculous argument to rest). It’s a milky white substance made from your Skene glands, which can be found on either side of your vaginal opening, on the upper wall, near the lower part of your urethra. This substance squirts out of your urethra either before or when you orgasm. (So cool!) If you’re worried about the mess, put a towel down before you start getting busy.
Also remember there's also nothing wrong with you if you can't squirt, which is also a question we get a lot. If you’re wondering if you can ejaculate, you might be able to. Check out how to do it here.
When To See A Doctor: Never, squirting is totally normal!
5. “Why Is My Vagina Shaped Weirdly?”
We are all beautiful snowflake flowers, by which I mean to say that all of us are different. And this is particularly the case when you’re talking about the range of shapes and sizes our special parts can come in.
Labia can be shaped a number of ways, and all the ways are normal! Seriously, some people have nearly no pussy lips, while others’ are luscious and large. Just check out the Large Labia Project to see what I mean. Whatever your lips are shaped like, they are normal.
Recent trends that seek to alter labia through the surgical process of what’s actually called designer vaginoplasty are not evidence-based and can result in serious health complications such as infection, changes in sensation, and scarring.
Similarly, clits can differ from human to human — from where they are placed in relation to the vaginal opening to how big they are to how much they are covered by their hoods. (Just check out all this variety!) Again, this is all completely normal, despite what plastic surgeons might want you to think. The surgical procedure removing the hood is called clitoral unhooding or hoodectomy; this isn’t recommended by healthcare organizations because there’s no medical reason for it, only medical risks.
When To See A Doctor: If some type of sex (particularly penetration) is very painful for you. Otherwise, if it's just that your shape is different than what you've seen in porn, you're fine!
6. “Why Is My Vagina Sore After Sex?”
This doesn’t necessarily mean anything has gone wrong — it just means that you’ve had sex.
You can take a warm bath or put a warm or cool (not hot!) compress on your pelvic area for a few minutes. Kegels will also help your muscles get stronger, so they are more equipped to handle whatever you want. Check out my handy kegel how-to guide to learn how to do them correctly.
Finally: lube lube lube! Seriously, lube is your best friend for combatting a not-great-feeling pussy the next day.
When To See A Doctor: If you experience bleeding after sex and are worried you may have torn something internal.
The Bottom Line
We are all different. That’s an unchangeable fact, and one I strongly think we should celebrate! Unfortunately, our culture around sex shames us for a lot of the difference we exhibit naturally. There are certainly some things that can be “wrong” with your vagina you can have an infection that needs clearing up, for instance. But most of what we stress about when it comes to this most glorious body part is totally normal.
If you experience a lover telling you your body is wrong in some way, kindly let him (or her, we’re all capable of being awful judge-y humans regardless of our gender presentation) know that your body is normal and beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with it. And then either send them on their way, or send them here to read about how beautiful and fantastic difference actually is!
Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.
Images: Bustle, Giphy