A quick glance along the shelves at your local drugstore will show you there is an enormous number of feminine hygiene products designed to help keep women fresh. A search online will reveal the latest fads to ensure your nether regions remain fresh as a daisy, including douching and even steaming.
These products and articles have one thing in common in that they actively promote the idea that women’s vaginas shouldn’t have any natural smell.
It promotes that they shouldn’t produce any sort of discharge. In fact, it’s been shown that approximately 50% of women use panty liners to absorb unwanted discharge and around a third use them every single day.
However, the body is a marvelous thing and is designed to be self-regulating.
Why Some Discharge is Healthy and Has a Protective Effect
The discharges produced by a healthy vagina are self-cleaning and are extremely important. Cleaning this area using highly scented deodorants or other products is not recommended. From puberty onwards, as soon as estrogen levels increase, the vagina is colonized by healthy bacteria. They produce lactic acid as they are from the Lactobacillus group. This creates an acidic atmosphere or microbiome that has a protective effect against sexually transmissible infections.
A healthy vaginal discharge has fluid from the walls of the vagina, as well as mucus from the cervix and it contains lactobacilli. As hormonal levels change throughout the month, so does the amount of discharge produced, and its consistency also changes. This is all completely normal and helps create a protective environment. When healthy, it produces a characteristic smell that in some women may be stronger because of the number of sweat glands in the pubic area.
While washing the inside of the vagina isn’t recommended, it is important to keep the skin around it thoroughly clean. Putting anything inside the vagina will disrupt this environment, but once removed it is quickly restored. However, using vaginal cleansers or douches can reduce the numbers of protective lactobacilli.
Why Steaming is Definitely Not a Good Idea
Steaming this area definitely isn’t recommended as there is the risk of scalding or burning. The steam can have a drying effect that is highly likely to disrupt the microbiome, reducing the protective effect of vaginal discharge against infections. Experts regard the idea of steaming the vagina as little more than pseudo-science that could not possibly affect female hormone levels as it’s been suggested but may do harm.
When is Vaginal Discharge Not Normal?
You will almost certainly be aware of what can be considered a normal discharge. It’s highly likely that you will notice any changes to the color or odor, or to the quantity produced. If you do notice any changes then it’s best to seek medical advice and to book an appointment with your gynecologist. The most common cause is a yeast infection and where the vagina has become colonized by candida or yeast bacteria.
Other changes could be due to an infection, but many STIs that are caused by bacteria does not cause any changes to the discharge. Another possible cause is bacterial vaginosis, and where the vagina has become more alkaline. When this occurs, normal lactobacilli are replaced with other bacteria that can cause an unpleasant odor. It may result in a discharge that is greenish or greyish in color.
Although not harmful, the discharge could smell unpleasant and a gynecologist can discuss ways to manage this condition.
Ensuring You Have Regular Pelvic Exams
If you have a regular pelvic exam as part of your physical checkup then this will generally detect any changes such as bacterial vaginosis. It can also help to detect any sexually transmitted infections and will generally ensure you are healthy. If you are due to have a pelvic exam then you shouldn’t use any douches, vaginal sprays or powders, or tampons for at least twenty-four hours before your appointment.
Generally, it’s recommended that you don’t have the exam during your period because this could affect the results of a Pap test. However, if you have noticed any unusual discharge or pain then a pelvic exam can be carried out at any time. You shouldn’t delay simply because you have your period. If you are ever concerned about any changes to the color or amount of discharge you should book an appointment.
If you have noticed any other new symptoms, you should always book an appointment with your health provider.