Women’s intimate health is not often discussed, but experts say it’s vital for us to know what’s normal and what’s not. That’s because serious conditions, like gynecological cancer, can be easy to miss.
“One of the main reasons people don’t treat infections is because they don’t know they have one – mainly because they simply don’t know the symptoms,” says consultant gynecologist Dr. Anne Henderson.
She recommends checking your vulva regularly to help you understand any changes that may be happening. “Women should examine their vulva at least [every] two to three months,” she says. “You need to check for changes in skin color, anatomy, and shape. If you’re suffering with painful symptoms or bleeding, seek specialist help from your doctor.”
Remember, it’s a case of knowing what’s “normal” for you. Most of the time, if something does seem unusual, there won’t be anything seriously wrong – but it’s always best to get things checked out sooner rather than later.
Here, Dr. Henderson shares some of the intimate health warning signs that women should be aware of.
A lot of women are concerned about their discharge, but Dr. Henderson assures that it is mostly a healthy and very normal bodily function, as it sweeps bacteria away from the vagina. Nonetheless, problems with discharge can start when you have an overgrowth of certain bacteria or pathogens.
“If you have a heavy, white discharge, this may be thrush presenting itself,” she says. “At the beginning, it often manifests as very thick, severe thrush that can be likened to cream cheese or cottage cheese. It can also have obvious lumps in it.”
“If your discharge is runny, watery, or even has a grayish color, however, this may be an indicator that you are experiencing bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is caused by specific gardnerella bacteria,” she adds. “If you’re unsure what your discharge means, self-tests such as Canestest will help you quickly identify if your pH levels have changed and if you are experiencing thrush or BV. Once you have your diagnosis, you can effectively treat any changes.”
Experiencing an itchy vulva can indicate a number of possible problems. “These can range from an infection, such as thrush, to a reaction to underwear or clothing – especially ones made from synthetic fibers,” says Dr. Henderson. “Vaginal itching can also be caused by vaginal dryness, often onset by menopause.”
If you have vaginal or vulval itching, Dr. Henderson recommends switching to cotton underwear rather than polyester and using non-bio washing powders that won’t aggravate delicate skin.
“Think about the products you’re using in the bath or shower too, as these could be causing irritation,” she adds. “Finally, fragranced tampons can sometimes add to the irritation, so I always recommend that women consider using organic varieties, as these are less likely to cause further symptoms.”
Pain during intercourse is an important symptom to watch out for, particularly if it’s never happened to you before. “If pain is unusual for you, it’s something that should definitely be checked out because it could be one of the first signs of a serious infection,” warns Dr. Henderson.
“If you’re experiencing pain due to vaginal dryness, meanwhile, it could be a symptom of menopause or a hormonal imbalance due to a lack of estrogen. This can be treated effectively with local estrogen replacement. In some cases, pain during sex can indicate thrush and, if you’re experiencing pain and bleeding during intercourse, it may indicate a sexually transmitted illness or even inflammation of the cervix,” she adds. “It’s always a good idea to seek advice from your doctor if intercourse is causing discomfort.”
Pain can sometimes be associated with gynecological cancers too, so the best thing to do is make an appointment and get things checked.
A Change in Odor
Everyone has a slightly different odor, and what women find normal or abnormal is not the same for everyone.
“Your vaginal odor will change slightly throughout the month, largely because the pH level changes and the whole consistency of the mucus changes due to hormonal cycles,” says Dr. Henderson. “Getting to know what’s going on will help you understand what is normal for you. If you notice a dramatic change combined with an increase or change in discharge, it may represent a problem that needs to be checked out. A change in discharge combined with a ‘fishy’ odor, for instance, could likely be bacterial vaginosis. However, unlike thrush, it won’t cause discomfort.”
If you suspect you have BV or your symptoms persist, you should book an appointment with your doctor to get things checked.
“Most lumps or bumps on the vulval area are benign and completely harmless,” says Dr. Henderson, “although they can catch on underwear and cause irritation or discomfort during exercise or intercourse. However, in very rare cases, new lesions can indicate more serious pathology, including vulval pre-cancer or cancer.”
Dr. Henderson says vulval cancer may present either as an ulcer or open sore, which is more common than a lump or cystic swelling. “The affected area can also be uncomfortable, with burning discomfort and itching, but some cases are asymptomatic.”
She stresses that, if something feels wrong with your intimate health, it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. “Changes such as this should always be checked promptly by your doctor,” she adds.