7 reasons why your vagina might not be in full health
There’s nothing more uncomfortable than being itchy and irritated down there and often a persistent problem can knock your patience and confidence.
Bacterial Vaginosis, Thrush and of course, Sexually Transmitted Infections can be embarrassing ailments with which to approach your GP, but for the most part, are completely treatable. Here are seven reasons why your vagina’s health could be askew.
Wearing the wrong underwear
Wearing constricting undergarments overnight can create the optimum environment for a host of unpleasantness particularly in women, including an increased risk of bacterial and yeast infections.
Dr Shirley McQuade, Medical Director of Dublin’s Well Woman Centre said: “Wearing underwear to bed can cause problems for women in that the temperature is increased and the circulation is low which can allow for bacteria and yeast to thrive causing problems.
“It isn’t just underwear either. Wearing tight lycra while working out can also be a cause of recurring infections in women and I would always advise them to wear loose clothing while at the gym and cotton underwear."
Most women are affected by thrush at some point in their lives. The fungal infection affects the vulva and vagina and is caused by a yeast called candida, which is promoted by an skewed balance of the vagina’s pH. The natural pH of the vagina usually prevents candida from growing to abnormal levels, but when this is off, it can develop into a thrush infection.
“For some women, the contraceptive pill can make them more susceptible to thrush, because a hormone imbalance can impact the vagina’s pH,” said GP Dr Sinead Beirne.
Irritation, itchiness and redness of the vulva and vagina are all symptomatic of thrush.
Bacterial Vaginosis or BV is a common bacterial infection which is caused by an imbalance of the pH in the vagina. The vagina is usually acidic, which discourages the growth of bad bacteria, but encourages good bacteria (lactobacillus) to thrive. If the pH balance drops, anaerobic bacteria has the opportunity to thrive, replacing the good bacteria.
BV is very common and treatable, however during pregnancy it can be a concern.
“Although it would be quite rare, BV can be the cause increase the risk of miscarriage and premature birth,” said Dr. Beirne.
“It can be the cause of other infections such as chorioannionitis, an infection of the amniotic sack, which has implications for the baby,” she said.
BV does not usually cause irritation, but a classic symptom is a strong, fishy odour and a grey, or white milky discharge. Although such an odour is an indication of BV, 50pc of women do not experience any symptoms.
Traditionally antibiotics were used to combat the infection but more recently women can self-diagnose using kits available in pharmacies. Products such as Canesbalance, are treatment in the form of internal gels, which restores the pH levels to normal, restricting the pH balance and promoting the growth of good bacteria.
Recent research has suggested that waxing or shaving could be posing a threat to women’s health.
Dr Shirley McQuade said there has been an “enormous” increase in the number of Irish women waxing and shaving in recent years, and with it an increase in the number of women presenting with irritated, damaged or broken skin.
“Hollywood waxes for the most part can cause discomfort but also can cause things like folliculitis which is an inflammation of the hair follicles which can be quite painful and often has to be treated with anti-bacterial creams. Those who shave can also be prone to ingrown hairs,” she said.
“It seems like waxing and shaving generally just causes discomfort for days or weeks afterwards so our advice would be to not do either,” she said.
The practice also allows for the easy spread of viral infections, including sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
“I’ve seen HPV, genital warts, spread along the line of shaving. Another viral infection, molluscum contagiosum which is similar to chicken pox, also spreads easier along the line of waxing or shaving,” she said.
Late nights, worry and a poor diet can upset a woman’s hormone balance, which in turn can impact the pH in the vagina leading to irritation and leaving one open to thrush or BV. For the same reason, the contraceptive pill can also impact the vagina’s pH.
Washing the vagina with water and shower gel can upset the PH balance of the vagina and allow for certain bacteria to thrive.
“The pH of the vagina can be impacted by a number of things,” said Dr Beirne. “The vagina is almost self-cleaning, and washing it with shower gel and douching in particular can get rid of the good bacteria in the vagina. Spraying water and using certain shower gels to clean the vagina washes away all the good bacteria and upsets the pH balance, allowing yeast and other bacteria to thrive which can cause irritation,” said Dr. Beirne.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
Although many STIs lurk without any obvious symptoms, those who are sexually active should be tested every year, according to Dr. Beirne. STIs such as herpes can genital warts display more obvious symptoms, and the former can be quite painful and irritating. An unusual discharge and discomfort can be a symptom of an STI including Chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis.
Dr Sinead Beirne was speaking on behalf of Canesten's #BeVConfident campaign