When it comes to women’s health, breast exams, pap smears and bone density screenings are all frequently discussed topics. But even women who never miss a doctor’s appointment aren’t always well-versed on the importance of vaginal health.
“Most women ignore their vagina until it bothers them for some reason,” says Archana Sonig, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Atlantic Health System. “The good news is your vagina doesn’t need very much attention. Taking care of your overall health typically leads to a healthy vagina.”
Many of the uncomfortable conditions that affect your vagina can be attributed to a pH imbalance. The ideal vaginal pH range for reproductive-age women is between 3.8 and 4.5. Anything that enters your vagina can throw off the pH balance, from lubricants and soap to semen. If your pH levels move too far in either direction, the result can be itching, odor or a burning sensation from a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Dr. Sonig urges women not to try home remedies or treatments for these issues because they often make the situation worse.
“Any time you experience changes in discharge and odor, or if you are experiencing itching or pain, it’s best to make an appointment with your doctor,” she says. “Often we can determine the cause and provide an effective treatment option that will have you feeling better quickly.”
Vaginas are self-cleaning and the less you do, the better. One practice to avoid is douching. Not only does it change the pH balance of your vagina, it also disrupts the natural flora, which includes both good bacteria and yeast. Instead, Dr. Sonig recommends women use unscented soaps for cleansing and water- or silicone-based lubricants. Women should also choose period products that are comfortable to use and change the product several times each day, thoroughly cleaning any items designed for re-use.
Believe it or not, what you eat can affect your vaginal health. “I often tell my patients that if their gut is happy, their vagina is happy,” says Dr. Sonig. “The same foods that promote a healthy microbiome in our digestive tract also benefit the female reproductive tract.”
Foods that promote vaginal health include:
- Fish, olive oil, avocados and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids
- Green leafy vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fermented foods including yogurt and kombucha
- Soy-based products such as tofu or soy milk
And while most women know about the benefits of drinking cranberry juice for urinary tract infections, Dr. Sonig stresses that it may help prevent a UTI, but it will not cure one.
In addition to eating a healthy diet and practicing good hygiene, Dr. Sonig says that women should see their ob/gyn each year for an exam, to discuss any issues or address any questions they have.
“I see so many women who struggle with painful periods, sexual discomfort or contraception that isn’t easy for them to use, and we have so many solutions to these concerns,” Dr. Sonig. “I always aim to work with my patients to help them navigate the changes they go through, from puberty to childbirth and then menopause.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.