As women, we are generally not used to talking about our vulvas and vaginas. So much so, that many women don't know what the vulva actually is, or the difference between it and a vagina.
The vagina is the internal tube that connects the uterus (womb) to the outside of the body, while the vulva is the general name given to outside parts of the female genitals. The vulva includes the inner and outer lips (labia), the clitoris, the urethral opening (where your wee comes out) and the vaginal opening. Learn more about the female body parts.
Unfortunately, when there's a health issue with these parts of our bodies, many women don't want to talk about it. They feel embarrassed or ashamed, and avoid bringing it up with their doctor.
So what's the best plan of attack if things aren't feeling quite right 'down there'? What steps can you take to ensure you're getting the support and help you need, while still feeling in control and comfortable?
Stress less – you're not the only one
First of all, if you're experiencing vaginal or vulval symptoms, don't panic and don't be embarrassed. As Jean Hailes Medical Director and gynaecologist Dr Elizabeth Farrell explains, you're not alone.
"Many women experience symptoms and issues with these parts of their bodies," Dr Farrell says. "Some common symptoms are vulval itchiness, redness, swelling and skin cracking. There can also be changes to the way your vulva or vagina smells, and changes to your usual vaginal secretions."
However, Dr Farrell also says that just because these symptoms are common, it doesn't mean they should be shrugged off and not seen to by a health professional. "When women don't talk about what they're experiencing with their doctor, and if they continue to use home remedies or over-the-counter medications, without a proper diagnosis, this can be a problem," she says.
"Many women mistakenly believe their vulval symptoms are thrush – a common yeast infection also known as Candida albicans – but it could be due to a number of other issues. In fact, the most common cause of vulval itching is a skin condition, so it's important to make an appointment with your GP and find out what's really going on."
Getting an expert opinion
When you're seeing your GP and discussing sensitive issues, you're in a safe place, says Dr Farrell. "Your doctor's office is your place to talk about whatever health issues are bothering you," she says. "There is no judgement, we are there to help. Whether it's something that's wrong with your foot or your vulva, our aim and approach is the same: to support you in being the healthiest you can be."
If your symptoms don't clear up or if they keep coming back, ask your doctor to examine your vulva if they haven't already. "Vulval conditions can be tricky to diagnose based only on what you report," says Dr Farrell. "Your GP and/or gynaecologist should actually look at what's going on, in order to make the correct diagnosis and give you the correct treatment and advice."
Here are Dr Farrell's top tips to keep your vulva and vagina in good health:
- Wear cotton underwear
- Avoid G-string underwear. G-strings and close-fitting underwear – especially synthetic – can encourage the transport of bacteria from the rectum into the vagina
- Change out of wet swimwear as soon as you can, and avoid staying in tight sweaty leggings
- Choose your period products carefully – where possible, go for 100% cotton pads, tampons and liners
- Change your pads, tampons and liners frequently
- When going to the toilet, always wipe from front to back
- Don't use soaps, douches or other cleaning products on your vulva or vagina – warm water washing is enough. Your vagina is self-cleaning!
One last word
As a parting thought, Dr Farrell encourages all women to speak up when they have a health issue with their vulva or vagina. "When you think about all the amazing things that vulvas and vaginas do – they birth children, have orgasms, periods, and the vagina even cleans itself – it's a good reminder to take care of this part of our bodies," she says. "Women are incredibly lucky to be given such complex and fascinating body parts and they deserve to be looked after."
Jean Hailes for Women's Health has just released a new booklet for women – The vulva: irritation, diagnosis & treatment (PDF). Download it to learn more about this important area of health or visit the Vulva & vaginal irritation webpages to read more tips on keeping your vulva and vagina healthy.