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: home remedies for vaginal itch that rebalance your pH.
Q: I get a lot of yeast infections. I know what to do when I have a full blown one (an antifungal cream, but if it’s really bad, I call my doctor for an antifungal pill), but I feel like there should be something I can do when I feel that first itch or notice smell or texture changes in my discharge. There have to be some homeopathic remedies to rebalance my vaginal pH before I get a full blown infection! Right?
A: Ah, the perpetual vagina struggle. Pussies are strong, badass, and self-cleaning, and part of how they clean themselves is by maintaining a delicate balance of a bunch of different bacteria that keep you in optimal pH range. When your vagina is anything other than in the 4 to 4.5 pH range, it can start to feel not great. We’re going to learn about some of the things that can help you rebalance your most tender of bits without a trip to the clinic.
"There are many things can mess with vaginal pH including diet (namely, sugar), tight clothes, scented sprays, lotions and soaps, sitting in wet clothes or bathing suits, dehydration, and very acidic foods," Dr. Adeeti Gupta, founder of Walk In GYN Care, a walk-in gynecological care clinic, tells Bustle. "Vaginal pH varies during pregnancy, menstruation, pre-puberty and after menopause," she adds.
But it's important to stress that, like most things affecting the vagina, it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. "We have similar bacteria and the general rule of thumb is that bacteria exists in the vagina, but that balance is different and unique to each one of us," Keely Semler, MPH, a doula based in California, tells Bustle. "What may work for me may not work for you."
Many home remedies are backed by more anecdotal evidence than rigorous science, which is why if you don't find relief with the below remedies, or if your symptoms escalate, it's important to go to the doctor. "If [your discharge] is cottage cheese-like or has a odor which is fishy or foul smelling and looks greenish or deep yellow, then you need to be looked at by a GYN," Dr. Gupta says. "If you have symptoms like itching or redness, then you may have abnormal vaginal pH as well."
What Can Unbalance My Vagina?
Your vaginal pH can get unbalanced by many things you probably encounter on a regular basis, including menstruation (because blood is pH neutral, which is a higher pH than your optimal, slightly acidic vagina), tampons that have been inside you for too long, and diet (including sugar and gluten, which proponents of the alkaline diet plan think make you more acidic). Antibiotics can knock out the good flora while they’re destroying whatever unwanted bacteria you’re taking them to vanquish. Finally, semen is very basic, because Mother Nature is a cruel mistress.
If you’re in touch with your vagina, it won’t be that hard to know your pH is off, because you’ll start to feel not-great. "Itchiness can be a sign that your vaginal pH if off balance," Dr. Gupta says. If you find out your vaginal pH is too basic, your symptoms may be due to a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. If you have a yeast infection, your vagina might itch in your labia (vaginal lips) or inside your vagina. In addition, your vaginal discharge might look like and have the consistency of cottage cheese — white and clumpy. Finally, some people feel burning in their vaginas, as well as pain during sex or urination. With bacterial vaginosis (BV for short), your vagina may get itchy and your discharge can be thin, gray or white colored, and smell fishy.
On the flip side, your vagina can also be acidic. Technically, it's always a *little* acidic (since it's less than a pH of 7), but what it if gets to be too acidic? The technical term for this is cytolytic vaginosis, which is when you have too much lactobacillus. This type of vaginal problem is often mischaracterized as a yeast infection or BV, but really it’s just the opposite! The symptoms are a bit different, so make sure to take a pH test to know for sure that you're too acidic, and talk to your doctor about the best way to manage your symptoms.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a natural antibiotic. As its name indicates, it is acidic, which makes it helpful if your pH has become too basic. But, this does not mean you should put it on or in your vagina.
“Use apple cider vinegar on your salad and not your vagina,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University and author of Sex RX, told Women's Health. You can also cut it with water (I like mine with warm water and honey) and drink it — including it in your regular diet can even prevent imbalance.
Yogurt contains lactobacillus, a good bacteria that helps fight bad bacteria in your intestines and vagina and helps your vagina stay in the optimal pH range. Eating yogurt regularly can prevent your vagina from becoming too basic and even help recolonize a vagina with BV with good bacteria, says the Mayo Clinic.
You can buy the same probiotics that make yogurt a powerful vagina ally in pill format to help prevent basic vaginal pH. You can buy them as regular pills you swallow with your mouth to prevent pH imbalance.
Garlic is another natural antifungal that is particularly well-known (by bakers) to kill yeast. Though some studies have found that some compounds in garlic can be helpful when applied topically, most experts say not to put garlic in your vagina to help excessive basicness. Instead, enjoy your food with an extra clove or two of garlic.
5. Boric Acid Suppositories
For a basic vagina, boric acid suppositories are a common alternative treatment for a yeast infection that does have some data that it's effective. Please note I said “suppositories” — boric acid is toxic if you eat it or put it on an open wound. You can cheaply buy pre-made suppositories over the counter.
7. Coconut Oil
In addition to tasting delicious, coconut oil has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal elements. One 2007 study found that it was effective on Candida, the species of yeast that causes yeast infections, when tested in laboratory conditions. Cold coconut oil may feel soothing on a vagina with a yeast infection, but be sure to see your doctor if your symptoms don't go away with over-the-counter treatment.
8. Evaluate Your Sugar Consumption
Many people say that excessive sugar can contribute to "Our skin is an organ that reflects what's going on internally, so I'd ask how much sugar are you eating. That could perpetuate a yeast infection," Semler says. You don't have to cut out sugar entirely — plus, sugar is found in all kinds of food, like fruits and carbohydrate-rich foods — but being mindful of your intake can help you understand what's going on in your body.
The Bottom Line
Vaginas are pretty good at maintaining their optimal pH balance, but sometimes they need help. Just remember that if you don't start to feel better after a couple of days or if you start to feel worse, you should go see your doctor. You should also know that sometimes an itchy vagina or weird discharge is actually a sign of something more serious. Basically, do what you gotta do to feel better, but don't ignore chronic symptoms just because you want to avoid your copay.
This post was originally published on February 24, 2016. It was updated on July 3, 2019.