If you're trying to keep your vagina healthy, you're definitely not alone—dozens of products out there are trying to help you with that goal. But do you really know what you're shooting for—what a "healthy" vagina actually looks like? Sure, you can assume everything is working like it's supposed to, but what does it mean to have a healthy vagina—or, for that matter, an unhealthy vagina? First, the good news: The odds are good that your vagina is completely healthy most of the time. But if you want to make sure it stays that way, doctors say you should keep an eye out for these major signs that something is less than ideal:
You're experiencing pain
It's obvious, but it's true. Melissa Goist, M.D., an assistant professor of ob-gyn and physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that pain is always a concern. "Pain either focally or noted with intercourse may indicate a problem," she says. "Women can get labial infections or viral infections that cause discomfort without an abnormal or new discharge."
Just like any other part of your body, it's completely normal and healthy for your vulva area to be itchy here and there, but Dr. Goist says a persistent feeling like you need to scratch can indicate that there's a problem. If you find that you're really itchy down there on an ongoing basis, talk to your doctor—it could be a sign of an infection.
It's pretty common for a woman's labia to swell or puff up on occasion, says ob-gyn , M.D., women's health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., but it can be understandably alarming. "Since the vagina is very sensitive to changes in your daily environment, anything that affects its pH balance will also affect the smell, discharge, and swelling of the vagina," she says. If you notice puffiness down there, these could be factors: antibiotics, spermicides, an increased frequency in sex, hormonal imbalances caused by pregnancy or breastfeeding, and changes in diet, stress, and exercise. If you find that making small tweaks, like eating a healthy diet and finishing up a medication, don't help, talk to your doctor.
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You have a funky discharge
Some discharge is normal and healthy, and it can be clear or white, Iglesia says. Just like everything else with your vagina, some variation is normal, Dr. Goist says. But the biggest signs that something is off are a yellow or green discharge, discharge that’s thicker or a different texture than what’s normal for you, or discharge that’s itchy or smells, board-certified ob-gyn Pari Ghodsi, M.D., says. (It's also worth keeping in mind that your discharge will be thicker before you ovulate.) However, if you notice something new, you should flag it for your doctor. “It is difficult to determine if discharge is normal unless it is evaluated,” Dr. Goist says.
You have some gunk down there
While your vagina is basically a self-cleaning oven, it can develop debris in the labia grooves, called smegma, Dr. Ross says. Smegma is whitish or yellowish and is basically a buildup of gunk that's hanging around your vagina. "A healthy vagina needs the same attention to hygiene as any other part of your body," Dr. Ross says. "Between the urine and sweat, and the close proximity to the anus, your vagina must be cleaned regularly in order to prevent dirt and bacterial buildup and to avoid the unpleasant odors that may develop throughout the day." That can be a simple as using a mild soap and water in the shower—douching is never recommended, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
You have bumps in your labia
Turns out, your vagina can get zits, too. "The vagina has sweat glands and hair follicles prone to dirt buildup just like any other [part] of the body with hair and sweat," Dr. Ross says. "Cleaning the vagina regularly is critical to prevent dirty bacterial buildup, which could lead to acne, pimples, and foul odors." If you discover you have acne in your vaginal area, apply a warm compress to the area—don't apply any topical face treatments!
Of course, your ob-gyn is always your best resource for vaginal health. If you’re not sure whether you’re healthy down there or not, ask your doctor and don't hesitate to speak up. “Vaginal problems left without evaluation may cause long-term problems,” Dr. Goist says. And, keep this in mind, per Dr. Goist: “Prolonged problems can also take much longer to treat.”