Getting clued up on your vaginal health is important because, for too long, we’ve been exposed to unrealistic ideals of how a ‘normal’ vagina should be.
Maybe you see countless vaginal hygiene products on the shelves and worry yours isn’t fragrant enough. Or perhaps you feel anxious that yours isn’t small, neat or hairless enough and are considering cosmetic surgery.
The truth is, products such as vaginal deodorants are unnecessary – a healthy vagina does a great job of cleaning itself – and every vagina is supposed to look unique. It’s important not to be embarrassed about your vagina and get to know yours, so you can take action if you’re concerned – whether it’s a change in
Read on for all you need to know about having a healthy vagina, how to recognise when something’s wrong and when to see your doctor.
What does a normal vagina look like?
There’s no one ideal. The outside of your genitals, known as your vulva – your vagina is the canal inside – look different from one woman to another, and that includes size and colour. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to images you see online as this can undermine your confidence and self-esteem.
Instead, take a look at the vulvas pictured and see how no one is the same. Get to know your own vagina by doing a regular
. Check for lumps or bumps, soreness or redness and signs of something more serious.
Get to know your ‘vagina’
Your vulva has different parts:
- mons pubis: the external mound in front of your pubic bones covered with pubic hair that acts as a cushion when you have sex. It releases chemicals called pheromones when you’re sexually attracted to someone
- labia majora: these are the hairy larger lips that protect your vaginal opening and the inner part of your vulva
- labia minora: the smaller, hairless lips that surround your clitoris at the front
- clitoris: the sensitive, spongy tissue that varies in size from person to person. It's covered by a hood that in some women completely covers the glans. It swells when you get aroused (turned on), which can result in an orgasm
- vulva vestibule: the smooth surface below your clitoris and in between your labia minora that’s home to the opening to your urethra (where your pee comes out) and your vaginal opening
- vagina: the interior muscular channel that connects your vulva vestibule to your cervix. Your vagina expands and contracts to accommodate a penis, sex toy, fingers, tampons and to deliver a baby. Sperm travels up your vagina to your cervix and onto your uterus and fallopian tubes, and it’s also the route out for period blood and discharge
Find useful information on other areas of vaginal health with our .
How does your vagina stay clean and healthy?
Your vagina has its own built-in cleaning system and a colony of good bacteria, known as the microbiome, that keep its pH balance at the right level. A healthy microbiome protects against infections and keeps the ‘bad’ bacteria that can cause infections, such as
, in check.
Signs that your vagina is generally healthy are:
- it feels comfortable
- there isn’t
- no itching, pain, swelling or rashes
- it has a mild smell or no smell
- your discharge can be white, thin and clear or thick and sticky depending on where you are on your cycle
- no discomfort of pain during sex
Self cleansing vagina
Your vagina does a great job of cleaning itself with natural discharge. Normal discharge is a mix of vaginal cells and good bacteria in fluid that’s produced by the walls of your vagina and cervix. This discharge doesn’t smell and it’s milky white or thin and clear. If you notice any change in colour or odour, this may be a sign of an infection. Know when something is amiss by reading our article on
Read our articles on
Help your vagina stay healthy
Follow these top tips to keep your vagina healthy and infection-free:
- avoid using vaginal douches – they lower the acidity of your vagina, raising your risk of inflammation
- highly scented shower gels and soaps can irritate your vulva – swap to washing with just water or an unperfumed or non-allergenic soap
- use condoms to protect against STIs during sex and clean sex toys after each use
- wear loose cotton underwear and change it daily – tight underwear made from synthetic fibres can trap moisture and encourage the growth of bacteria and yeast, which may lead to infections
- avoid wearing tight trousers as it stops air circulating and increases your likelihood of developing thrush
- take care when – or try other hair removal methods – as you might get
- having regular helps to increase blood flow in your vagina, and this can maintain muscle tone, your vagina’s length and elasticity
- if you smoke it’s a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis as it causes a drop in the number of healthy bacteria in your vagina
- there is some evidence to show that with lactobacillus rhamnosus can boost healthy bacteria in your vagina. You can also find this probiotic in certain yoghurts and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi
Changes to your vagina
Did you know the shape, size and colour your vagina can change? Here’s how and why:
Sex and masturbation
Sex and masturbation change the shape of your vagina during sex – it expands and lengthens to accommodate a penis, finger or sex toy, only to go back to it’s normal shape afterwards.
When you’re turned on, a number of different changes swing into action. Your clitoris and labia minora swell as blood rushes towards them – they go back to their original size after you’ve reached your peak of sexual excitement (orgasm). The increased blood flow also causes your vagina to produce more arousal fluid – often called ‘getting wet’.
This wetness is different to your usual cervical mucus – both cervical mucus and arousal fluid come under the umbrella of ‘vaginal discharge.’ Read more about
If you have a vaginal birth you may need stitches for a tear. Careful cleaning will avoid infection and the wound should heal fully within 6 to 12 weeks. Other changes to your vagina following pregnancy and childbirth are:
- weakening of your pelvic floor (vagina muscles and ligaments). Having a baby can cause:
- loss of bladder control: This can happen before you give birth because of the pressure of the baby on your tummy. After birth, it’s also common for women to have . are a good way to tighten overstretched muscles.
- prolapse: a long, hard delivery may lead to a . This is when your pelvic organs slip into your vagina. It’s uncommon and estimates vary, but one large survey suggests it happens to 3% of women. It’s thought 50-75% of these are caused by childbirth. The risk increases the more babies you have and may be less if you have a caesarean delivery. You can strengthen your pelvic floor muscles by doing regular exercises
change of shape: After vaginal birth, your vagina may feel wider. This will improve and shouldn’t cause you problems although it’s unlikely to return to its exact former shape. There will also be swelling and bruising around your perineum (the area around your anus and vagina), which should heal quickly, but can last up to six weeks.
- vaginal dryness: If you’re breastfeeding, you’ll have lower oestrogen levels and the drop in this hormone can make your vagina dryer and lead to painful sex. This should ease off once you stop breastfeeding but it can be treated with vaginal oestrogen if it’s causing problems.
Read more about
After the menopause – which usually happens between 45 and 55 years old – your oestrogen levels drop, which can lead to:
- vaginal dryness: Read more about
- : As your pelvic floor muscles weaken your pelvic organs can slip into your vagina and cause discomfort. If you suspect you have symptoms of vaginal prolapse, see a doctor
How to spot and treat vaginal health problems
There are several signs that you might have a vaginal health issue. If you have any of the symptoms below, go to your doctor or sexual health clinic:
What it could be: Read about the
, including thrush, pubic lice and irritation from chemicals.
What it could be:
can bring on a burning or stinging pain when you have sex.
causes persistent vulval pain that can be burning, stinging, throbbing or soreness, or a raw sensation
Symptom: unusual discharge
What it could be:
can give you discharge that looks a bit like cottage cheese but doesn’t usually smell. If you’ve had thrush before you can usually get treatment over the counter from a pharmacy, without a prescription. Discharge that isn’t normal for you could be a sign of a
, such as trichomoniasis.
Symptom: inflammation (soreness and swelling)
What it could be:
(also called vulvovaginitis) is the term used for any type of inflammation of your vagina, vulva, labia and clitoris, which often leads to soreness and swelling. It can be caused by lots of different things, but it often happens because of an infection or something that changes the normal balance of vaginal bacteria.
Symptom: vaginal dryness
What it could be: Dryness can happen following childbirth or the menopause, due to a drop in oestrogen. You can often treat vaginal dryness with self-care methods such as moisturisers and lubricants but if it doesn’t improve, see a doctor.
Symptom: pain during sex
What it could be: This could be caused by a number of things, including vaginal dryness, an infection or genital irritation from products. Read more about
Symptom: unusual bleeding
What it could be: Bleeding between periods,
can be a sign of many problems including minor injuries caused by sex, an infection including an STI or more rarely a sign of cancer including later stage
is rare, but one of the most common signs are also bleeding from your the vagina after sex, between periods of after the menopause or discharge that has blood in it.
Symptom: lumps on your vagina
What it could be: A
is one possibility. It happens when one of the small glands at the opening of your vagina becomes blocked and swells with mucus. Lumps may also be a sign of an STI, like
– small growths around your genitals caused by
Symptom: Blisters and sores
What it could be:
is an STI caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), the same virus as cold sores. Look out for blisters and sores, itching and tingling.
When to see a doctor
Book an appointment to see your doctor if you notice any of these signs and symptoms:
- vaginal dryness
- itching, pain, swelling, rash or blisters
- strong or unpleasant smell
- pain during sex
- pain when you pee
- unusual discharge – green, yellow, blood stained or lumpy
- large amounts of discharge
See a doctor urgently if:
- if you notice vaginal bleeding or bloody vaginal discharge that’s not normal for you, like after sex, when you’re not expecting your period or after menopause
- you have any new lump around your vagina
- you notice new burning or stinging symptoms, have a fever and feel unwell
You should call an ambulance or go to the emergency department if you develop:
- severe pelvic pain
- a combination of feeling very unwell with flu-like symptoms, a high temperature, dizziness, fainting or confusion particularly if you are using tampons as these could be signs of .
TSS is a rare condition. The warning signs are:
- a sunburn-like skin rash, with the whites of the eyes becoming red/pink
- fainting or feeling faint
- muscle aches
If you’ve booked a doctor’s appointment, use our
before you go to get initial feedback of your symptoms.
Your health questions answered
What should your vagina smell like?
Let’s put it this way, your vagina isn’t meant to smell of roses, but it should have its own ‘natural’ scent that you might be used to. If this suddenly changes and you pick up a strong odour, then this could be a sign of infection, or something more serious such as
. Alternatively, if you have forgotten to remove your tampon things will get whiffy down there. This can be serious if you have a high temperature or any pain at the same time, as together these are symptoms of the rare bacterial disease toxic shock syndrome so seek help immediately. The upshot? Whenever you detect an unusual smell, make sure you see your doctor who can help work out what's causing it and the best treatment for you.