Your vagina’s not meant to smell like a flower, and it’s normal for this body part to behave differently throughout the month, and throughout your life, as hormone levels change. It can be hard to know what’s normal, and what’s not, and what you can safely monitor at home versus getting in right away to see your gyno. Here’s a look at three common va-jay-jay symptoms, what they mean, and when you need to get medical attention, pronto.
A little discharge is totally normal—that slippery, clear or white-ish stuff you see in your undies is just fluid your vagina makes to help get rid of dead cells and bacteria that may build up down there. (In fact, most women produce anywhere from one-half to a teaspoon of this stuff every day!) This type of discharge may get thicker and heavier (a consistency similar to egg whites) around the time you’re ovulating.
But if your discharge is thicker than usual, and is a strange color (like yellow, greenish, or even gray), see your doctor, especially if it smells bad. Yeast infections can cause a thick white discharge, and any type of colored discharge could indicate a vaginal infection such as bacterial vaginosis or even a sexually transmitted disease such as gonorrhea or trichomoniasis. Your gyno can take a sample of the discharge and, depending on what’s causing it, prescribe anti-fungal meds or antibiotics to take care of the problem. If an STI is the cause, don’t cringe—STIs that cause discharge are curable but can cause long-term problems if not treated. So see your doctor or use an STI home test kit to get checked.
Whatever you do, don’t douche. Your vagina’s like a self-cleaning oven and doesn’t need any help in that department. In fact, when you douche or use cleansers in the vaginal opening, you can upset your vagina’s natural bacterial balance, leaving you extra-vulnerable to irritation and even a down-there infection.
Itching and Burning
Sometimes vaginal pain can be caused by a temporary irritation, like a perfumed soap or the after-effects of a long sex session. But if symptoms don’t go away after a day or so after you stop using whatever’s irritating you, or the itching gets worse, you need to see your doctor.
Usually, this itchy, burning feeling is caused by vaginitis, or a vaginal infection. This happens when the yeast and bacteria that live naturally in your va-jay-jay get thrown off balance. (For example, if you’re prescribed antibiotics to treat a bad sinus infection, it can kill off a lot of other bacteria, including some of the good bacteria in your vagina, which can cause yeast to overgrow.) Two common causes of vaginitis are a yeast infection, which usually causes thick white discharge along with itching, and bacterial vaginosis (BV), which causes increased gray-white discharge with a fishy smell.
If you experience these symptoms, you may be tempted to grab a tube of Monistat and try to treat yourself. Don’t. Only about ten percent of women who think they have a yeast infection actually have one. You’re better off seeing your doc and getting diagnosed for sure. Between five and eight percent of all women are lucky enough to get repeat yeast infections each year. If this is you, talk to your doctor about preventative steps you can take, like a longer course of treatment or even switching your birth control to a low estrogen or progestin-only pill (high levels of estrogen may make you more susceptible to yeast infections).
Aching or Stabbing Pain
If you mainly experience pain when you pee, and/or you feel like you have to go often (only to find that only a little is coming out), you most likely have a urinary tract infection. Up to sixty percent of all women get one at some point in their lives, and if you’re sexually active and between the ages of 18-24, you’re at highest risk. They’re pretty easy to get: the bacteria that live in your butt can be pushed into your lady bits during sex, and these bugs can travel to up your urethra and to bladder, causing infection.
If you think you have a UTI, call your gyno. If your symptoms scream classic UTI—pain and burning during peeing, plus a frequent, often urgent urge to go—then you probably have one and your doctor can even prescribe antibiotics over the phone. But if it’s a repeat infection, or you don’t feel much better after a day or do, you’ll need to see your physician for a urine culture, where they actually ID the bacteria causing your UTI. This way, they can make sure you’re on the right antibiotic to fight these bugs.
You can help prevent UTIs by drinking plenty of fluids and peeing after sex, to help flush out germs that may get into your bladder. Cranberry juice or pills are often touted as a way to stave off these types of infections, but there’s no good research to show they actually work. If you’re one of the ten percent of women who get an UTI at least once a year, you can talk to your doctor about other preventative measures — some women take a single low-dose antibiotic after each time they have sex.
If you only notice pain when you’re having sex, see your doctor. It’s not uncommon—nearly three out of four women experience it at some point. But it can also signal a problem like an ovarian cyst (particularly if the pain is on one side) or endometriosis, or even be due to the meds you’re taking. Your gyno can check you out and help prevent it from recurring.
About the Author
Hallie Levine is an award-winning journalist who has covered health and wellness for more than twenty years for publications including Consumer Reports, The New York Times, Health, Prevention, Time, Reader’s Digest, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health, and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.