Eight things you need to know about your vagina

Vaginal health is an important part of our overall well-being. Here, our experts answer eight questions you've always wanted to ask - but never dared to.

How do I know if my discharge is normal?
“While vaginal discharge is usually colourless and not associated with itchiness or smells, it differs from woman to woman. Also, vaginal discharge varies with ovulation and childbirth,” shares Dr Tony Tan, specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, and consultant at Raffles Women’s Centre.

Be alert to unusual changes in the smell, colour, quantity or texture of your vaginal discharge, as this might signal an infection. Dr Christopher Ng, gynaecologist at Gynae MD Women’s & Rejuvenation Clinic, warns: “You should see a gynaecologist if your discharge has a smelly odour, is yellowish or greenish in colour, or has the consistency of cottage cheese. You should also let your gynae know if you experience abnormal bleeding or spotting that is not related to your period.”

What is a healthy vagina supposed to smell like?
Does the smell from your vagina make your nose crinkle? According to Dr Ng, it’s normal for your vagina to have a slight odour. “However, a strong, fishy smell might suggest that you’re suffering from an infection called bacterial vaginosis, which is caused by an overgrowth of normally occurring vaginal bacteria,” he says. “A strong odour is also associated with sexually transmitted infections like trichomoniasis.”

Are infections common? How can they be treated?
Most women will experience at least one vaginal infection in their lifetime, says Dr Ng. Dr Jazlan Joosoph, specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, and consultant at Raffles Women’s Centre, observes that vaginal infections are very common and usually affect young women who are sexually active.

Says Dr Joosoph: “Treatment will largely depend on the nature and cause of the infections. For instance, viral infections are treated with antiviral medication and bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. However, sexually transmitted infections will involve contact tracing, whereby all sexual partners involved will need to be screened and treated.”

Is douching good or bad for the vagina?
Vaginal douching is a method of washing the vagina with water or an over-the-counter solution, by spraying it in through a tube or nozzle. “While douching might make you feel cleaner and more refreshed, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it offers any real health benefits,” notes Dr Cordelia Han, specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, and consultant at Raffles Women’s Centre. “On the contrary, the pressure of the douching fluid may push bacteria or menstrual blood back into your uterus and fallopian tubes. This can increase the risk of ailments such as pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis.”

Douching may also destroy the “good bacteria” that contributes to the natural flora in your vagina. “This natural flora produces lactic acid, which maintains vaginal health and protects you from vaginal infections,” adds Dr Han.

What’s the best way to keep it clean?
Dr Ng recommends washing the vagina thoroughly with a feminine wash, such as Lactacyd or Vagisil, as it restores the natural, slightly acidic pH level. This environment prevents the growth of bacteria and fungus, thereby reducing the risk of infection. “Some feminine washes also contain probiotics, which maintain the flora of your genital tract,” he adds.

What type of underwear should I choose?
Ditch the silky panties – loose cotton underwear is best suited for Singapore’s climate. “Cotton tends to absorb moisture and creates better ventilation, so opt for cotton underwear even under pantyhose,” says Dr Ng. Dr Han adds: “Avoid tight-fitting nylon underwear as it can trap moisture and heat, thereby creating a breeding ground for yeast infections.”

Should I shave or wax?
There is no harm in shaving or waxing your lady bits. “However, when you wax or shave, you might inadvertently remove a superficial layer of your skin, exposing the raw area to germs,” shares Dr Ng. “If you experience frequent infections due to these hair removal methods, I would recommend going for intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments instead, as they remove hair by targeting the hair follicles directly.”

Are there foods that will help keep me healthy down there?
Generally speaking, a healthy diet equates to a healthy vagina. “Avoid processed foods, which often contain excessive refined sugar and preservatives. Instead, opt for plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are chock-full of vitamins and minerals that contribute to overall health,” says Dr Han. Also, load up on natural yogurt, as it contains good bacteria in the form of lactobacillus acidophilus cultures to maintain the vagina’s slightly acidic pH levels.

This article was originally published in Simply Her July 2015.