Although most of us know our vaginal health is important, we may not spend as much time thinking about it as we do other aspects of our bodies. It's clear that habits like sexual activity and hygiene habits can have an impact, but there are a number of other unexpected things
that can cause feminine health changes. Paying attention to what can affect your vaginal health can help you stay away from issues such as infections, STIs, and uncomfortable skin issues.
"As a gynecologist, I can tell you that the vagina is one of the most impressive organs in the human body,"
OB/GYN Dr. Shannon Klingman tells Bustle. "Healthy and unhealthy bacteria both exist in the vagina. The good bacteria prevail the vast majority of the time. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ and tolerates the effects of intercourse and semen, periods and menstrual blood, as well as menopause and pH changes that go along with that. With all that wonder being said, there are times when the vagina is more vulnerable to a disruption of its ... balance."
Despite the vagina's resilience, it can still be affected by outside factors. Here are 11 unexpected things that can affect your vaginal health, according to OB/GYNs.
"A [lifestyle] high in sugars and carbs can increase your risk of developing
vaginitis (yeast and bacterial vaginosis)," OB/GYN Dr. Angela Jones tells Bustle. "Anything that offsets the pH of the vagina lends itself to disturbing the delicate balance of bacteria/flora that help maintain good vaginal health." Jones says eating balanced, nutritious foods can help maintain vaginal heath and prevent infections.
The products you use in the shower and even the detergent you use to wash your bedsheets can cause issues with
your vaginal health. "Soaps (laundry & body), lotions, lubricants, fabric softeners/dryer sheets and fragrances can irritate your vagina," OB/GYN Dr. Octavia Cannon tells Bustle. Because your vagina is self-cleaning, it doesn't need too much care from soap. But if you do decide to clean it, use unscented soap, which could be less irritating.
Certain hormone levels can change the dryness of your vagina, but aside from being uncomfortable, dryness can also lead to issues with your vaginal health. "If your vagina is dry, sex can be painful, and you may have severe itching, irritation, bleeding, or infections," says Cannon.
Using lubricants can help reduce dryness during sex, and make things more comfortable for you.
They may reduce panty lines, but experts say
be careful when wearing thong underwear. "The bacteria you have around your backside do not belong in your vagina," says Klingman. And with thong underwear, it might be more likely that this bacteria can travel. Klingman suggests wider, cotton-based underwear which does not spread this bacteria as much.
Women who have chronically elevated blood sugars, something
common with diabetes, are more prone to an overgrowth of vaginal yeast. "If you notice vulvar itching that occupies your mind all day long with the feeling you need to scratch, with white particulate or chunky vaginal discharge, chances are you need to see your doctor and get that treated," says Klingman. But luckily, most yeast infections are easy to treat. With a course of antifungal medications prescribed by your doctor, your vaginal health will return.
It's important to protect your vagina when engaging in anal sex. If anal penetration is followed by vaginal penetration, it can spread bacteria. "[B]acteria that are found in our gastrointestinal tracts need to be kept away from the inside of the vagina," says Klingman. If engaging in anal sex, it may be a good idea to switch condoms or clean toys before any other types of play.
Tight-Fitting Or Wet Clothing
Your clothing choices can affect your vaginal health too. "Tight clothing does not allow your skin to breath, and moisture accumulates and yeast can grow," says Klingman. "Same is true for a wet bathing suit. Get out of that thing ASAP and into something dry."
Although antibiotics can help fight off an infection you may have, it can also reduce the number of healthy bacteria in the vagina. For that reason, it is important that antibiotics are only taken when you need to fight off an infection. "We need to be certain women are accurately and not overdiagosed with conditions they do not need antibiotics for," says Klingman. This way, we can better maintain vaginal health without undue risks.
Sleeping With Underwear On
What you wear to bed also matters when it comes to your health down there — you don't want to wear anything too restrictive. "Sleeping commando or without underwear gives your vagina a chance to breathe," says Klingman. "The less your vagina is exposed to damp or constricting clothing, the better. So, if you struggle with yeast infections in the past, consider this option and see if it helps."
Your Partner's Medication
Believe it or not, some medications can get excreted into semen, which can then affect your vaginal health. "One question which often gets missed in a medical history is asking the sexual partner what medications [they are] on,"
Michael Ingber, MD tells Bustle. "I have had women who come in with a 'semen allergy,' only to find out that it was not an allergy to semen, but actually to a medication that her partner was taking." So ask your partner if they are currently taking any medication to help prevent potential allergic reactions.
We all know that smoking is bad for your lungs, but it can also be destructive to your feminine health. According to research published in the journal
BMC Infectious Diseases, smoking cigarettes increases your risk of bacterial vaginosis, as smoking messes with your body's levels of natural bacteria.
Although your vagina is incredibly resilient, keeping an eye on your habits can help maintain good feminine health.