Why a vaginal self-exam is a good idea

15th June, 2022 • 8 min read

You probably know all about the importance of regularly checking your breasts and keeping an eye on your moles, but when was the last time you did a vaginal exam? Getting up close and personal with your vagina is an excellent way to ensure all’s well down under – and get to know what’s normal for you.

If this is your first time, you may feel slightly anxious, uncomfortable or uneasy about checking your vagina. For a start, you may be wondering what you’re actually looking for and what the different parts of your genitals look like and what they do. Start by checking our infographic to help you identify the external (vulva) and internal (vagina). Knowing the geography of your gential area and getting an idea of how the different parts look will help you pick up on any abnormalities that may signal a health issue. It’s well worth setting aside shyness, cultural barriers or an aversion to carrying out bodily examinations for the good of your genital health.

During a vaginal self-examination look for any lumps, unusual smells or discharge. If you notice anything amiss, make an appointment to see your doctor to get a diagnosis and treatment. Don’t confuse a vaginal check at home with essential medical tests such as a cervical smear or pap test that look at the health of your cervix and are only carried out by health professionals.

You can also use our

smart symptom checker
to run through your symptoms. You’ll get information to help you work out your best next steps. And if you do need to see a doctor, you’ll have an instant personal report that you can take along to your appointment.

How often should you check your vagina?

Becoming more familiar with your vagina and how it looks and feels means you’re better prepared to spot any changes. You don’t need to check every month, but aim to check at regular intervals and so you can tell when your body changes.. If you’re having regular periods, aim to carry out a check at different times of the month so you get to know the types of discharges at different points in your cycle. This helps you recognise what’s normal over your cycle.

What does a normal vagina look and feel like?

The shape, colour, look and texture of your vagina are unique to you. Once you get to know how your vulva and vagina look and feel, you’ll be better able to pick up on potential problems, including:

  • a change in discharge colour
  • a new smell that isn’t quite right
  • redness or soreness
  • lumps and bumps

Find useful information on other areas of vaginal health with our

complete Guide
.

A step-by-step guide to checking your vagina

Before your vaginal self examination

  • you’ll need: good light (you might want to use the torch on your phone) and a mirror, ideally with a handle, so you can angle it for the clearest view. Or, you could sit with a mirror on the wall in front of you
  • you won’t want anyone bursting in on you, so you may feel more relaxed doing your vaginal exam when your children are in bed or at school, and your partner’s out
  • be hygiene-savvy and wash your hands before exploring
  • take off your clothes from the waist down and get yourself comfortable on a bed, chair or on the floor, supporting your back with pillows or cushions

During the vaginal exam

  • it’s best to sit down with your knees bent, placing your feet near your bottom. Lean back slightly, against your support, then spread your knees apart so you get a good view of your vagina
  • if you’re using a mirror on a wall in front of you, spread your feet apart so you can clearly see your genitals. If you have a hand mirror, angle it so you can see the external parts of your genitals (known as the vulva) and just inside the internal area (the vagina)
  • start by just looking, especially if this is the first time you’ve done it. Notice the colour of the skin here, the shape of your labia, clitoris and vagina

Here’s what you’re checking:

1. Your vulva (outside your vagina)

Look at your:

  • labia, the outer and inner lips of your vulva
  • clitoris, the small bump covered by a hood of skin at the top of your labia
  • urethral opening, where pee comes out
  • vaginal opening

2. Inside your vagina

Use your fingers to gently part your vaginal lips to:

  • see into your vagina and and note the colour of its walls - usually a reddish-pink - and see its small ridges
  • look for and assess any vaginal discharge. A normal discharge is usually clear or a cloudy white, doesn’t have a strong smell and may be thick or thin

What to look out for when you check your vagina

We’ve decoded the signs that could suggest something might be wrong.

Smell

Any unusual

smells
– for example, a fishy-smelling discharge may be a sign you have
bacterial vaginosis
, caused by a bacterial imbalance or an infection. Depending on what’s causing it, you might need antibiotics from your doctor.

Discharge

There are many types of discharge that you can read more about

here
. These types in particular may be a sign of an infection:

  • discharge with a thick texture, looking like cottage cheese, often with itching, may be
    thrush
  • a green, yellow or frothy discharge may be trichomoniasis, an
    STI
  • a discharge with pelvic pain or bleeding that may be an STI such as
    chlamydia
    or
    gonorrhea

Lumps and bumps

Check out our guide to lumps in your vagina here and read on for the different causes:

  • common causes of growths or lumps include
    genital warts
    or
    Bartholin’s cysts
  • a lump or itch that won’t go away, with smelly and blood-stained discharge, irregular bleeding and pain when peeing may be a sign of
    vaginal cancer
    (although that’s very rare, especially if you’re under 40)

Redness, itching and soreness

These symptoms can be linked to a health condition or it could be irritation caused by things like scented bath products or wipes, which may lead to:

  • vaginitis
    - this causes soreness, itching or swelling around your vagina
  • genital herpes
    , an STI causes blisters or sores on or in your vagina
  • eczema
    , a skin condition, causes itching

What’s next?

If you have skin irritation in or around your vagina, washing with only water or soap-free, unperfumed products might help to clear it up. But for most of the signs we’ve mentioned, such as itching or unusual discharge, you’ll need to speak to your doctor to see what’s going on. Most of these conditions aren’t serious but might get worse if you don’t get proper treatment. You can also go to a sexual health clinic, where you may get a walk-in appointment and may get your results quicker than seeing your usual doctor.

Remember that checking your vagina is completely different to regular cervical screening of the cervix and it isn’t meant to replace it. You’re eligible for a cervical screening smear from the age of 25-64 in the UK and 25-65 in the US. These screenings usually test for human papillomavirus (HPV), the common virus linked with cervical cancer. If it’s found, checks will be made for early cell changes that might become cancerous, so they can be treated.

Your health questions answered

Can I test the pH of my vagina at home?

A pH test is easy to use and you can buy one from your pharmacy. The test measures the acidity of your vaginal discharge and the result gives you an idea of whether you may have an infection such as bacterial vaginosis. It doesn’t pick up other infections, such as thrush or STIs.

The test takes minutes to do at home. You press a small pH strip onto the inside wall of your vagina and compare the colour of your strip to a chart that comes with the kit.

If you have a positive result you should see your doctor or go to a sexual health clinic. But remember a negative test doesn’t mean you don’t have an infection at all. If your pH test is negative and you have any symptoms, see your doctor.

Your doctor wouldn’t use a pH test on its own. They’ll examine you, ask you questions and possibly carry out some other tests.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.