Does everyone look like that down there? What’s normal for discharge anyway? And, um, where did that tampon go?
Questions about our vaginas can be embarrassing, making it hard to bring them up with even close friends or partners. Doctors, however, have seen and heard it all. So we asked two of the best—Lauren Streicher, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and author of “Love Sex Again,” and Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., clinical professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex”—to answer 10 of the most common vagina-related questions for you.
1. Do all vaginas look basically the same?
This question, Dr. Hutcherson says, is usually code for “Do I look normal?” Many women have at some point pulled out the ol’ hand mirror to check out what’s up down below, but how do you know if all of your parts look like everyone else’s? First, let’s clarify: When asking about what looks normal, most women are actually referring to their vulva, which includes the clitoris, labia (lips) and vestibule (opening)—all of which are outside the vagina. And guess what? There is no “normal.” There are tons of differences from woman to woman. Same goes for the actual internal organ—the vagina—which is different depending on a woman’s age, height, sexual history and childbirth experience.
“Noses don’t look the same, eyes don’t look the same, [and] vaginas all look very different,” Dr. Streicher explains. “The differences are related to the stage of life they’re in. There are differences in someone who’s had children, someone who is sexually active, someone who is 6-feet tall versus 4-foot-8. There are lots of variations based on what their vagina has been through.”
Hutcherson points out that sometimes questions about normalcy—whether it’s looks, taste or smell—stem from a place of insecurity brought on by a partner. “They’ve been told by a partner that something looks different because if all [their partner has] seen is pornography or nude photos in magazines, so they have a skewed view of what a vulva is supposed to look like,” explains Hutcherson. “The photographers have taken creative license with photographs and women in pornography are chosen specifically for how they look down there. So people can get a skewed view of what is normal.” Whatever yours looks like, know that it’s beautiful. End of story.
2. What is “normal” vaginal discharge?
It turns out there are different norms for different women, and what’s normal can also change depending on the time of the month. Right before ovulation, women tend to have a lot more secretions, which may be kind of stringy, like egg whites, according to Hutcherson. After ovulation but before the menstrual period starts, there may be less discharge but it might be a thicker vaginal discharge that lines your underwear.
“It freaks women out sometimes because they’re like, ‘Ah, I have a yeast infection!’ but they have no symptoms, no itching, no odors,” Hutcherson says. “They’ve just noticed that their secretions are thicker and whitish, and they get worried.”
It is, however, a good idea to keep an eye on what’s coming out of you. As long as it’s clear and mucus-y, Streicher says, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. If you’re itchy down south or there’s a strong odor, make an appointment with your gynecologist to rule out an infection.
3. Can eating different foods change the way you taste?
That spicy Indian meal you ate last night set your mouth on fire. Will it eventually set your partner’s mouth on fire, too, after he goes down on you? Probably not, but Hutcherson notes that studies have shown certain foods, such as melon and pineapple, can cause you to taste sweeter. On the flip side, meat-heavy diets can change the taste of vaginal secretions to be “not so great,” she adds. And here’s a bummer: Alcohol, which for many is a way to lose our inhibitions in the sack, can also change the flavor of a vagina for the worse.
Streicher says there are occasionally reports of people who take vitamins that leave a metallic flavor in their vaginal secretions, but taste is basically dependent on the pH balance of the vagina. If the taste is “off,” then the pH is likely off.
4. Is douching once in a while really that bad?
Remember that junior high school gym teacher who lectured your sex-ed class about the evils of douching? That’s because regular douching changes the pH balance of the vagina, which is usually acidic, and disrupts the balance of normal yeast and bacteria that live inside the vagina. Those disruptions can lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
Douching once in a while probably isn’t harmful, according to Hutcherson and Streicher, but both doctors caution that even one treatment can be problematic. “You can change the environment in your vagina and increase the risk of getting infection,” says Hutcherson.
If you’re douching because you’ve detected a less-than-pleasant odor, it will only help temporarily because the pH of the vagina is likely already off. “I tell people to do a course of RepHresh [an over-the-counter vaginal gel treatment] to normalize the pH and then you can get in and see your doctor to figure out what’s going on,” suggests Streicher.
5. Does the vagina get bigger or stretched out after childbirth?
Yes, things are going to stretch. But the muscles surrounding the vagina are built to expand and contract—think of it like an accordion—and the vagina does snap back. And in case you were curious, the average vagina is 3-4 inches long, according to Lissa Rankin, M.D., author of “What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend,” but it can expand by an impressive 200 percent when sexually aroused. In other words, your vagina is highly elastic.
Streicher says women are often concerned about losing sensation and functionality post-pregnancy, but that usually does not happen. Pregnant women can actually get those muscles in shape before the baby even comes. Hutcherson recommends practicing Kegel exercises—you know you’re doing it right when it feels like you’re holding in your urine flow—while they’re pregnant and immediately after giving birth.
“That way, you keep up the strength of the muscles that surround and support the vagina,” she says, “and you don’t get the sensation that the vagina has been stretched.”
6. What causes vaginal dryness?
There are lots of reasons behind vaginal dryness, and they’re almost all nothing to worry about. Dryness is a common complaint among menopausal women with lower estrogen levels. It also happens to women who are taking birth control pills or antihistamines that dry out mucus membranes all over your body, including your vagina.
Women who complain about dryness are usually referring to dryness during sex, which can be painful, notes Hutcherson. Her suggestion? Spend more time in foreplay to become aroused, keeping in mind the longer you’re in a relationship, the longer it will take to prepare your body for sex. And use a water-based lube liberally to reduce friction and discomfort.
7. Is it safe to skip your period using birth control pills back-to-back?
It might seem like intentionally skipping a period goes against some kind of law of nature. But it’s totally safe, according to both Hutcherson and Streicher, and much more common than you’d think. In fact, Streicher tells her patients on birth control pills that as they finish one pack, they should start another. “There’s no medical reason to have your period,” she says. What’s more, the bleeding that happens when you’re on the Pill is actually not a natural period anyway—it’s a withdrawal bleed, meaning it’s simply the body’s reaction to not having the hormones it’s used to getting from the birth control pills during the other three weeks of the cycle.
8. Does it smell differently at different times of the month?
Some people douse themselves in perfume or cologne to attract a mate. It turns out that in a way, our bodies can do the job on their own. Hutcherson says studies have shown the vagina does smell sweeter or stronger right before ovulation. “Of course, this is the time you would want to attract someone, if you want to have a baby, right before ovulation,” she says. There’s also a change in scent during menstruation, due to the smell of menstrual blood hitting the air, and at other times of the month as the vagina’s pH changes.
9. Can things like tampons get lost up there?
Sort of, but not really. We’ll explain: Tampons, condoms, grapes (more on that in a minute) can get lost—or really, lost enough that it’s out of your reach and requires a professional to pull them out.
But don’t fret: “[The item] doesn’t leave the vagina—there’s a thought that it somehow travels up and will come out your mouth,” Streicher jokes. “Sometimes you can have something that gets lodged that isn’t easily retrievable, and a gynecologist can certainly do that.”
A good lesson to learn: Remember to remove what you’ve put in. Hutcherson sometimes sees patients who complain about a foul odor and discharge that can be bloody. In some cases, the odor and discharge is caused by patients who forgot to take out that last end-of-period tampon and then had sex, which pushed the tampon further up into the vagina. Or a sex partner will have accidentally left a condom inside their vagina, and another round in the sack will push the condom deeper inside.
Tampons and condoms are one thing. Food play during sex, however, can lead to some especially nasty vaginal issues. “One time I pulled out a grape from somebody who was playing with food during sex and forgot to remove it,” Hutcherson says. “The grape caused her really bad, foul discharge. If you forget something, you’ve got to get it out!”
10. Is waxing off all of my hair down there bad for my vagina?
Pubic hair does serve a purpose. It decreases friction during sex, notes Streicher. But the current trend of landscaping going au naturale means women are going to wax, shave or laser their hair down there, no matter what. It’s OK to groom your bikini line, but be aware of the risks. That nail salon on the corner that does a little waxing in a back room? Watch out for double-dipping in the hot wax among clients, which can spread bacteria or fungi. Shaving carries the risk of cuts and infection that it would anywhere on the body, while laser treatments can sometimes cause burns.
“The reality is that that hair was not meant to be removed, although a lot of people choose to do that,” says Streicher, who has blogged about a March 2013 study that found a link between the irritation from hair removal and an increase in vulvar molluscum contagiosum, a sexually transmitted virus that causes skin eruptions. “You have to be careful, like anything else.”