Many of us learned the bulk of information about puberty and periods during a few sexual education classes in middle school, and through the hushed conversations with peers that followed. Though hundreds of millions of people menstruate, the topic is treated as taboo across the globe. Not only are periods treated as off-limits, but vaginas as a whole are highly stigmatized — in real life and in film. Due to this discomfort surrounding reproductive health, many people feel too ashamed to speak about their vaginal health, and too ashamed to ask important questions about it.
This leads to a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding vaginal health — a 2016 survey from nonprofit organization The Eve Appeal revealed that 44 percent of British women were unable to identify the vagina or reproductive system on an image. Moreover, another 2016 study, from the sex toy brand Womanizer, showed people had many misconceptions about their own reproductive systems, with 73 percent of participants polling they would opt not see an OB/GYN over an ingrown hair — even if it had the potential to actually be an STI (like a herpes sore).
Having an understanding of your natural bodily functions and vagina is super important to maintaining your health, so here are eight things your OB/GYN wish you knew:
1. Douching Is Bad For Your Vaginal Health
"Most OB/GYNs highly advised against douching at all. In some cases, douching can do more harm than good," Dr. Lakeisha Richardson, an OB/GYN, tells Bustle. According to the Office on Women's Health, around one in five American women between 15 and 44 douche — aka clean out their vaginas with water, soap, or a mix of fluids. Despite how common douching is, OB/GYNs agree across the board that the practice is pretty bad for your vaginal health. Douching is linked to STIs, urinary tract infections, and even a rise in toxic chemicals called phthalates.
Richardson adds that any vaginal odor could be caused by a pH imbalance in your vagina. "Think of your vagina as a delicate ecosystem that needs to be maintained at a pH of 3.5 to 4.5," she explains. "Lots of women douche to feel clean and fresh, but understand that water has a pH of 7 — so while it might make you feel fresh for a short time, it won’t solve the problem."
2. All Those "pH-Balancing" Soaps Are *Also* Harmful To Vaginal Health
Vaginas have their own bacteria, just like your gut, that keep it healthy, balanced, and protected. Though the tampon aisle is full of vaginal soaps that claim to fix your vagina's pH level, doctors agree these body washes aren't going to help.
"Overall health can affect vaginal pH as well as hormonal status. Women who are well hydrated, follow a well balanced diet which includes things like yogurt, and practice safe sex will have a normal vaginal pH. Harsh soaps used within the vulvar and vaginal areas can be harmful," Dr. Rinku Mehta, the medical director of Frisco Institute for Reproductive Medicine, told Teen Vogue.
Odorous vaginal discharge is not necessarily a problem every now and again, but if it is consistent, it may indicate you have an infection. Either way, skip the pH soap next time you feel like you smell, and just let your body naturally clean out bad bacteria. If you feel like you really need a pH-balancing vaginal product, Richardson says she recommends RepHresh to her patients — a clinically-approved, odor eliminating gel that can be bought over-the-counter.
3. Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) Isn't As Common As You Might Think
Toxic Shock Syndrome, also known as TSS, is a bacterial infection that causes your immune system to go into overdrive, and if left unchecked, can lead to multi-organ failure. Tampons have been associated for an increased risk of TSS, because if you leave them in your body for longer than recommended, they can easily breed bacteria that can cause an infection. However, it is far less common than you might think — TSS is considered rare, with only 1 in 100,000 menstruating people in the United States being diagnosed with the bacterial infection annually, according to the CDC. Changing your tampons as recommended and maintaining your vaginal health can help you avoid any scares.
4. Birth Control Affects Everyone Differently
Not everyone will react to birth control the same way, and what works for you and your hormones may not work for someone else. Though everyone produces the same hormones, many variables — including stress, age, and overall health — can cause varying hormone levels in everyone.
"The right birth control method depends on the patient," Richardson says. "Birth control is only effective when it is used correctly, and a lot of women have gotten pregnant while taking birth control because they were not taking it correctly."
So, don't stress if your friend has a great experience on the pill, but you prefer the NuvaRing; it's completely normal to have various reactions, especially if you have a mental or physical illness that already contributes to hormone imbalances.
5. Birth Control Isn't Just For, Well, Birth Control
While on the topic of birth control, it's important to note it doesn't just have a sole purpose of controlling your fertility. Richardson tells Bustle birth control can be used to "regulate abnormal cycles, and "can help shorten the length of your menstrual cycle and decrease the amount of blood loss during menses." She adds it can additionally be used to treat reproductive health issues such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Some people even use it to treat acne. So, even if you are not sexually active, it may be helpful to consult your OB/GYN about birth control if you are dealing with any on the above issues.
6. You CAN Get Pregnant On Your Period
Though it is a common myth that you absolutely can't get pregnant while you are on your period, there is a slight possibility that you, well, can. It all depends on ovulation (aka the part of your cycle when you are most fertile), and where you are in your menstrual cycle. Having a shorter (28-day) cycle, or a cycle that is unpredictable, can increase your likelihood of pregnancy during period sex. Also, sex at the end of your period is more risky in regards to pregnancy, since sperm can live inside you for up to five days. Your chances of getting pregnant from period sex are low, but taking the regular precautions is still a good call, especially if you do not want any kind of pregnancy scare.
7. Don't Ignore Persistent Menstrual Pain
Experiencing mild to moderate abdominal cramping while on your period is completely normal, but you should see your OB/GYN if the cramping is persistent or severe. Endometriosis, a common reproductive health issue, affects one in 10 American women between the ages of 15 and 44. So, while chances are you just have normal period pain, it doesn't hurt to be aware it could be caused by a more serious condition.
8. Lastly, Don't Skip Your Annual Exam Or Routine STI Testing
I know this may seem obvious, but never skip your annual exam or routine STI testing. "Women who delay their annual exams and pap smears are more likely to be diagnosed with an advanced cervical cancer than women who continue to see their doctor on a regular basis," Richardson says, explaining that even women who have received a Bilateral Tubal Ligation (a form of permanent birth control) still need to see their OB/GYN regularly.
Additionally, Richardson adds, "One of the most important things women can do for their reproductive health is to protect themselves when starting new relationships. If you are in a relationship, still get tested every six to 12 months."
Your OB/GYN is truly the only person with the proper training, tools, and equipment to determine the full scope of your reproductive health needs. Your health is too important to ignore, so never be ashamed to ask your OB/GYN any questions, or raise the smallest of concerns.