Doc Talk: Weird Things Vaginas Do that Actually are Normal

If you have ever wondered if your vagina or vulva is normal, you are not alone. You might feel a bit nervous or embarrassed to talk to your women’s healthcare provider about if that smell… down there… is normal, but that’s precisely what your provider is there for to talk through your questions, address any unfounded insecurities, and come up with a treatment plan if necessary. We spoke with Dr. Briana Huguenel of Women’s Comprehensive Health Care about what is actually normal, down there.

1.Your vagina may smell for a reason

Your vagina may have a slight odor due to the natural presence of bacteria. A fermented odor may be related to lactobacilli, or the "good" bacteria that lives in your vagina that helps prevent infections. Some variations to odor are normal. For example, a metallic odor may be associated with your period. While some women don’t notice a smell at all.

Your groin area also has sweat glands. After a sweaty workout, you may notice a stronger smell, particularly if you wear tight clothing to exercise. Stress may also cause you to secrete fluid from your sweat glands which can create a strong scent when mixed with genital bacteria. Diet and hydration status may also influence the odor.

What to look out for:

A fishy odor may be a sign of a bacterial infection. A foul odor could be a sign of infection or something like a retained tampon.

2.Your vagina is acidic

Your vagina is naturally acidic which can lighten some clothing dyes. This is not a sign that anything is wrong. For example, some people use lemon juice, which is more acidic than vaginal discharge, to lighten their hair.

3.Discharge comes in all amounts and colors

"Discharge" is a mixture of bacteria, liquid, mucus, and exfoliated dead skin cells from the cervix and vagina that are being flushed out daily. Discharge is normal, even though it can be bothersome. The amount may vary at different times of the month. For example, if you are ovulating your discharge changes to promote fertility. If you are on birth control, it may change to inhibit sperm motility. Discharge also provides a natural lubrication for intercourse so you do not have pain and helps prevent infections by creating a natural barrier.

What to look out for:

A sign that your discharge is normal is that it is clear or white in color, odorless, and should be no more than about 1 teaspoon per day. If the amount, consistency, or color changes, particularly if there is associated discomfort or strong odor you should contact your doctor. Discharge that is yellow, green, or bloody (and is not your period) is considered abnormal and you should call your WHC provider.

4.Your period is ever-changing

There are many factors that may influence your period. In addition to variation in flow and cramps, you may notice a change in the duration of the period or a change in the interval between periods. A major cause is when you ovulate or whether you ovulate at all.

Factors that may cause menstrual variation include:

  • age (adolescence or peri-menopause)
  • changes in hormones (such as thyroid disease)
  • being recently postpartum or breastfeeding
  • nutrition status (being too thin or being overweight)
  • excessive exercising
  • being sick or changing medications
  • travel
  • stress

If you are on hormonal contraception you may also experience variation depending on how your birth control works. Some birth controls suppress ovulation, and some don't. Also, if you are not taking your medication on time can affect your period.

What to look out for:

If menstrual variation happens occasionally it is nothing to worry about. If you are noticing menstrual irregularity, you should discuss this with your doctor.

Signs that there may be a more serious underlying cause would be:

  • consistent bleeding between periods
  • bleeding after sex
  • pain not controlled by over the counter medications
  • dizziness with bleeding
  • bleeding lasting longer than 10 to14 days
  • heavy bleeding beyond 1 to 2 days (the average women should not lose much more than 6 TBSP of blood over the entire course of her cycle)

5.Yeast happens

Yeast is a fungus that can be normally present in small amounts in your vagina. Yeast can also move from your Gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is one reason why after using the bathroom, we should always wipe front to back. A quarter of women may have yeast in their vagina without symptoms and up to half of women will have at least one yeast infection in their lifetime.

What to look out for:

Common symptoms of a yeast infection are itching, swelling, painful urination or sex, and a white "cottage cheese" discharge.

Risk factors for getting a yeast infection include things like:

  • diabetes
  • antibiotic use
  • being immunocompromised (i.e. HIV, cancer, chronic steroid use)
  • being pregnant

6.Your vagina can change size and color when aroused

When engaging in sexual activity your body goes through 5 stages: desire, arousal, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Like the tissue engorgement of the penis that causes an erection, there is tissue in the vaginal area that receives an increase in blood flow that causes engorgement and darkening of the tissue. These changes also coincide with vaginal secretions that lubricate your vagina during sex. This all happens during the "arousal" stage.

7.Your vagina is self-cleaning

No need to wash the inside of your vagina, it is a self-cleaning organ. You can wash the outside (your vulva) with warm water or unscented soap. Douching or washing inside the vagina can make discharge, odor, or irritation worse. It may be tempting to use scented sprays or wipes or to take a bubble bath with scented soap, but this can contribute to irritation. Wearing cotton underwear and avoiding thongs or frequent use of panty liners is preferred, as is removing underwear to sleep.

If you have any questions or concerns about your vagina, schedule an appointment with your Women’s Health Connecticut provider.

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