When you think about your self-care routine, your vagina might not come to mind. But it should. Practicing good vag care saves you from STIs and other infections—so you can enjoy your lady parts even more.
Keeping your vagina healthy doesn’t have to be hard. It can even be fun! Here are five steps to keep things healthier down there.
Sexually transmitted infections are back in record numbers, with more than 2 million new cases in 2017 alone, per the CDC. This is bad—but what’s worse is most STIs don’t have symptoms. You or your partner might have a STI and not even know it. Left untreated, STIs can cause infertility, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, and increase your chances of getting HIV.
That’s why regular testing is essential. Get tested with every new sex partner, get tested at your annual check-up, get tested even if you’re exclusive with your partner—basically get tested whenever you get the chance.
And make sure your provider screens you for a full spectrum of STIs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. They should also take a culture of your throat and rectum—because chlamydia and gonorrhea like to hang out in those places.
Clean your sex toys
All bacteria isn’t created equal. Good bacteria living in your vagina isn’t the same as the bacteria in your mouth, on a sex toy, or on those panties you’ve been wearing since last night.
Protecting vaginal bacteria from foreign bacteria helps to avert infections like bacterial vaginosis that cause odor, discharge, and itching. So clean your sex toys appropriately after every use, and toss your panties in the wash on hot.
But don’t clean INSIDE your vagina. Avoid feminine cleansing products, douches, feminine deodorant sprays, bath bombs, and scented pads, tampons, and toilet paper. These products try to fool you into thinking they’re necessary, when the truth is quite the opposite. As Courtney P. Sherman, doctor of nursing practice at Nurx, explains, “The perfumes in these products cause bacterial vaginosis, which leads to discharge and odor, which forces you to continue to purchase these very cleverly marketed products.”
Get the HPV vaccine
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common STIs out there. In fact, the CDC believes almost every single sexually active person will at some point get HPV if they don’t take the proactive step of getting vaccinated. Every year, HPV causes more than 30,000 new cases of cancer, typically in your cervix, vagina, vulva, or anal areas.
Now, for the good news: HPV vaccines are not only highly effective—they’re also available to more people than ever before. The FDA now recommends getting the vaccine up to age 45. Before, the vaccine was only recommended for older children and teens.
Go easy with antibiotics
You’ve heard this before about antibiotic use, but maybe you didn’t know antibiotics not only kill helpful gut bacteria, they also wipe out tiny bacteria living in your vagina. These helpful bacteria produce hydrogen peroxide that’s needed to keep your lady parts clean and disease-free. This is why, when you take antibiotics, you might get diarrhea or infections like bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection.
What can you do? Try DIY remedies, such as noshing on a few bowls of yogurt or taking probiotics. To prevent an infection from even starting, request fluconazole (Diflucan) from your provider with your antibiotics prescription.
The hormone estrogen is key to good vag health, keeping the delicate tissues flexible and lubricated. But the amount of this crucial hormone drops with certain health conditions and in the run-up to menopause. While estrogen pills might help, the best antidote is the horizontal hokey pokey.
“Sex is good for vaginas and maintains vaginal tissue in a way that estrogen prescriptions cannot.” explains Nurx’s Sherman. “If estrogen production is a problem, you can still keep your vagina in good working order by using it!”