Your vagina, just like any other other part of the human body, can be subject to illness or infection. There’s no need to be worried or embarrassed about seeking help for issues relating to your vagina – nearly all women will experience one of the following issues in their lifetime. In this section can find information about keeping your vagina healthy, common infections, dryness, and vulval pain.

How can I keep my vagina healthy?

There are a few simple things you can do to keep your vagina health.

Washing your genitals daily
Avoid using perfumed soaps, deodorant sprays, wipes, bubble bath solutions, douching, deodorized panty shields, and talcum powder on the vaginal area.
Wearing cotton underwear and avoiding tight jeans and other tight clothing
Wiping from front to back after urinating and after a bowel motion

Keeping your vulva (the external part of your genitals) clean is as simple as cleansing the area with warm water. You can use a wash cloth or a mild soap if you like, but these are not necessary. Your vagina contains plenty of ‘good’ bacteria that work to keep it clean, so you don’t have to worry about cleaning inside your vagina.

What about smells/discharge?

It’s completely normal for our body parts to smell and for your vagina to produce discharge. Your vaginas odor and discharge will often change throughout your cycle. There is no need to worry about your vagina unless you have a particularly unpleasant odor, or unusual discharge (grey, green, or yellow in colour), or itching/pain.

If you do have these symptoms, it’s possible you have an infection like thrush or bacterial vaginosis.

Vaginal thrush

Vaginal thrush is a very common yeast infection that affects most women at some point in their lives. Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of yeast known as Candida albicans that is present in the intestines, vagina, mouth and skin where it is normally kept under control by naturally occurring harmless bacteria. If conditions change and the pH (acid-alkaline) balance is disrupted, the yeast can increase rapidly and cause extremely unpleasant symptoms such as itching and soreness around the vagina.

What causes thrush?

Thrush is caused by a change in the natural balance in the body’s bacteria.

This can occur as a result of:

the use of antibiotics
a weakened immune system
an increase in sugar levels which encourage the growth of bacteria
the contraceptive pill
pregnancy
periods
products that change the natural acidity of the vagina such as vaginal deodorants, sprays, gels and wipes, perfumed bubble baths, and douching
clothing that is too tight and prevents air from circulating which creates a warm, moist place for thrush to develop
stress

Symptoms

The most common signs of thrush are painful itching, soreness and swelling of the vaginal area, a chalky white yeasty-smelling discharge, pain during sexual intercourse, and pain when urinating due to the urine stinging the inflamed tissues.

Treatment

Thrush is caused by a fungus, so antifungal drugs can be used to treat the infection. These medications stop the growth of yeast infection without affecting the friendly bacteria in the vagina. The treatment is simple and can be offered in several ways.

You can visit the pharmacy for over the counter remedies available for thrush. However, some of the symptoms of thrush are the same as those of other vaginal infections so the only way to be certain that you have thrush is for a doctor or nurse to take a swab from the inside of the vagina and look at the vaginal area.

It is possible to spread thrush during sex (although it is not an STI), but your partner only needs to be treated if they are showing symptoms.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is an infection caused by an overgrowth of bacteria. It’s normal for your vagina to have bacteria, however imbalances in bacteria can lead to bacterial vaginosis.

What causes bacterial vaginosis?

Medical professionals aren’t entirely sure what causes bacterial vaginosis, but it is more common in the following populations:

➜ women with more than one sexual partner
➜ when women change sexual partners
➜ in women who have sex with other women

Symptoms

The most common symptom is unusual vaginal discharge or an unpleasant odor which worsens after unprotected sex. It’s also possible to have no symptoms at all.

Treatment

If you have no symptoms, you may not realise you have bacterial vaginosis and the infection can clear on it’s own. If you have do have symptoms your doctor will likely prescribe you a seven-day course of antibiotics. There are creams on the market, but there’s more research to support the use of antibiotics.

If you have bacterial vaginosis your partner does not need to be treated.

Vaginal dryness

Vaginal dryness is characterised by vaginal discomfort or soreness, and sometimes (but not always) by vaginal dryness even when sexually aroused. 

What causes vaginal dryness?

Vaginal dryness is one of the most commonly reported symptoms of menopause and is caused by a reduction in oestrogen levels. However, vaginal dryness can also occur as a result of childbirth, during periods of stress, and as a result of taking birth control pills.

Treatment

You can try a variety of home remedies and topical products to treat dryness. At home you can try and increase your fluid intake by drinking lots of water. Avoiding products that change the natural acidity of the vagina – such as vaginal deodorants, douches or perfumed bubble baths – is helpful too as these may irritate sensitive vaginal tissue. You can also use topical products, available in the form of creams and gels, which may relieve ongoing vaginal dryness. If you are suffering from vaginal dryness during sex you can try using a water based lubricant.

Vulval pain (vulvodynia)

Vulvodynia refers to chronic pain in the vulva, the exterior tissue of the vagina, and urethra. Symptoms of vulvodynia include chronic pain, burning, stinging, itching or irritation. The cause is currently unknown, and it is thought that multiple factors may be involved.

Vulvodynia is a condition that is very difficult to diagnose, and diagnosis is usually made after other conditions, including psychological and relationship issues, have been investigated and ruled out. It is important to see a health practitioner whom you trust who has experience in treating this condition for a diagnosis.

Treatment

There are a wide variety of treatments available, although there have been few controlled trials testing the efficacy of them. As each woman’s experience is different, what works for one woman may not work for another. Some women find success with the following:

avoiding or discontinuing all soaps, douches, perfumed deodorants, and bubble baths
taking oral medications
physical therapies
dietary changes
acupuncture
pelvic floor therapy
for those with vulvar vestibulitis syndrome, surgery is an option.

Useful links

Vaginal health

Are vaginal douches safe or not? » information on the safety of douching.

Vaginal discharge: what’s normal? » explanation of what is considered regular discharge vs. unusual discharge .

How to clean your vagina and vulva » detailed guide to cleaning your vagina.

Infections

Medicines to treat vaginal thrush » information on treating thrush in New Zealand.

Bacterial vaginosis » information on treating bacterial vaginosis in New Zealand.

Vaginal dryness

Natural ways to relieve vaginal dryness » further information on treating dryness naturally .

Vulval pain

Vulvodynia Support NZ » resource for women with vulvodynia and their partners.

Vulvodynia causes, symptoms and treatment » in-depth information on vulvodynia

National Vulvodynia Association (USA) » a nonprofit organization, has been dedicated to improving the health and quality of life for women with chronic vulvar pain.