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Think you know everything you should about your intimate areas? No matter how knowledgeable you are, there is always an opportunity to learn something more. There’s a reason why a physician undergoes many years of education and training to become an OB/GYN specialist. The female reproductive system is complex!
Along with its complexity comes a potential host of diseases, disorders, and issues that range from the annoying to very serious.
Use this guide to learn more about the basics of your reproductive system, particularly your vagina, and remember to always ask your GP or gynaecologist if you have questions or suspect a problem.
You’ve probably received a pelvic exam at your gynaecologist’s office or from another healthcare provider. Despite the name, much of a woman’s reproductive system is located outside of the true pelvis. Let’s start with what you can see externally.
The vulva is the collective term for the external female genitourinary anatomy. It consists of a fat pad – the mons pubis – as well as the labia majora, the labia minora, and the clitoris. The labia majora are the outer lips of the vagina while the labia minora are the inner lips. The clitoris is a nerve-rich bud at the top of the vaginal opening where both the labia join. It serves as a centre of sexual pleasure.
Both the mons pubis and the labia majora typically begin to grow hair during puberty. These structures also contain sebaceous glands which secrete oil to protect the skin.
The vaginal opening itself is located near the anus. The area between the vagina and the anus is known as the perineum. The vaginal canal itself is fibromuscular, meaning it is made of both muscle and connective tissue. This gives the vagina exceptional flexibility which is, of course, important for childbirth. Located opposite the anus from the vagina is the urethral opening, where urine exits the body.
The vagina continues to the cervix, which then connects to the uterus or womb. During menstruation, the uterine lining breaks down and is expelled through the cervix and vagina in the form of bloody discharge.
You should also note the two types of glands near the vagina – Skene’s glands and Bartholin’s glands. Skene’s glands, also called paraurethral glands, are located to either side of the urethral opening. Their exact purpose is still subject to a lot of debate among physicians and researchers, but we do know that they have a sexual function. These glands are similar to the male prostate on a cellular level and produce lubrication during sex. They may also play a role during orgasm. The size of Skene’s glands varies greatly among women. In fact, some women appear to lack these glands completely.
Bartholin’s glands have a similar function except that they secrete a mucous-like lubrication when you become aroused and don’t appear to have an orgasmic component. Again, there are two of them and they are situated behind and to either side of the vaginal opening. Unfortunately, Bartholin’s glands are sometimes subject to troublesome cysts.
Now that we’ve put names and functions to some structures, let’s talk about “that time of the month.” Menarche, or the onset of menstruation during puberty, occurs on average between the ages of 12 and 13 in Australian girls. This typically lasts until menopause, which women in Australia can expect to arrive at about age 51.
In addition to issues like premenstrual syndrome and other medical problems, you need to be quite aware of hygiene during your period. The fact is that all pads and tampons are not created equal. Hygiene products with dyes and perfumes can irritate your sensitive areas, causing rashes and/or inflammation. For this reason, stick with undyed and unscented tampons or sanitary napkins. In fact, this goes for a number of hygiene products such as toilet paper and wipes. Make this your mantra – “No scent, no dye.”
Also remember to change your tampons every 4 to 8 hours.
By no means should you leave a tampon in for multiple days. Doing so leaves you open to the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is a rare but quite serious condition caused by toxins released by bacteria that breed in the environment of old tampons. Always consult your Healthcare Professional.
You may not give much thought to your underwear on most days, but your choice of underwear can actually be quite important to your vaginal health. Much like your stomach and intestines, your vagina contains a number of bacteria. Some of these bacteria are normal and healthy. However, they can be overtaken by “bad” bacteria and other microorganisms that cause infections.
Your underwear should be made of a breathable material – like cotton – that allows air to flow. When your vaginal area becomes overheated and sweaty, it creates prime conditions for harmful microorganisms to thrive. To that end, avoid G-string style underwear. These can restrict air flow and irritate your skin. This is not to say you have to wear unattractive, baggy underwear. Just make sure you’re choosing undergarments that allow you to stay fresh and cool.
That brings us to swimwear. Obviously, your swimsuit is not going to be made of breathable cotton. That’s fine – just make sure you don’t lounge for long in a wet swimsuit. Change into fresh swimwear or back into dry clothes so that you don’t risk vaginal infection.
A final note on underwear – remember “no scent, no dye.”
White underwear are the best choice as some dyed underwear may irritate your vaginal area. Also avoid scented laundry detergents or fabric softeners, particularly if you’re prone to irritation in your intimate regions.
Only the outer portions of your pubic area are capable of growing hair, but hair removal can still cause big – and painful – trouble. Many women today decide to remove their pubic hair, but you should use caution in how you go about this.
Shaving can cause nicks and cuts to your vulva or irritate your skin.
If you choose to shave your pubic hair, do so carefully and use unscented shaving cream.
Waxing and depilatory creams may also result in irritation and rashes. If you choose to go this route, you might consider the services of a certified and experienced aesthetician or other professional. If you do suffer from a rash, shaving bumps, or other irritation to your external pubic area, use a product specially-designed for pain relief in your most sensitive areas.
Sexual intercourse can result in a number of sexually-transmitted diseases, several of which are not apparent from visually inspecting your partner. In other words, you can’t tell simply by looking if someone has a sexually-transmissible disease.
For this reason, it’s important to always use condoms, even if you’re already utilising another form of birth control.
Oral contraceptives and IUDS do not protect against disease, only pregnancy.
However, if you notice a rash or irritation with condom use, you may have a latex allergy. Consult with your gynaecologist about this, as other condom materials are available.
Every part of your body is interdependent, and this includes your vagina. Your overall health affects your vaginal health and vice-versa. So make sure you’re living healthy, both for your own sake and your vagina’s.
First of all, stick to a healthy, nutritious diet. This means avoiding too many sugars and simple carbohydrates, instead basing your meals around lean protein and plenty of colourful vegetables. A varied diet is key. Of course, if you have unique nutritional needs or dietary restrictions, follow the advice of your Healthcare Professional.
Another crucial component of good health is to refrain from tobacco use. It cannot be overstated how unhealthy smoking is for your body.
Smoking literally damages every part of your system, including your reproductive organs.
If you smoke, stop! It’s never too late to quit and your Healthcare Professional will have access to several smoking cessation options.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. Good quality, restful sleep is vital to your well-being and vaginal health. Although eight hours per night is often quoted as an ideal, this is not a hard and fast rule. Some women can get by on six or seven hours of sleep, while others may need as much as 10.
Proper hydration is yet another important facet of good health. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and don’t substitute sodas or fruit juice. Although these beverages contain water, they’re not as hydrating as old-fashioned H2O. Additionally, watch your alcohol intake. Alcoholic drinks can dehydrate you by causing you to urinate more. This can be bad both for your overall health as well as your vagina. Your intimate areas rely on natural lubricants, which means you need to stay hydrated at all times.
Finally, don’t forget to take time for relaxation. Modern life can be extremely stressful, and stress affects you on a hormonal level. These hormone changes can alter the normal bacteria within your vagina and even lead to vaginal dryness and irritation. Make time for yourself and de-stress, whether it’s with a good book, meditation, a meal with friends, or just a nice nap.
At one point or another, most women encounter some sort of health issue involving their intimate area. This may be simple irritation, a yeast infection, or something more serious. Always remember – you should contact your Healthcare Professional at the first sign of trouble.
Yeast infections, also known as candidiasis, are usually characterised by intense itching. You may notice discharge from your vagina. While vaginal discharge is not uncommon, it is normally thin and clear. White, thick, or “cottage cheese-like” discharge is a sign of a problem. A yeast infection can show symptoms very similar to other vaginal infections, so it’s always best to get checked out by a medical professional.
To help prevent yeast infections, make sure to wear cotton underwear and keep your clothing dry.
Hot, moist environments are a breeding ground for yeast. Also, you might try a probiotic supplement that contains the helpful bacteria lactobacillus or adding yoghurt to your diet in order to keep your vaginal bacteria healthy and balanced. However, don’t follow the internet advice of placing yoghurt inside your vagina – this could introduce an infection.
An unpleasant odour from your vagina is not necessarily a sign of an infection, unless it is overpowering or persists. Such odours can be handled by bathing as well as using a gentle, nature-based product like Active Gel by Multi-Gyn.
A very strong odour, burning with urination, discoloured or thickened discharge, or intense itch may all be signs of bacterial vaginosis or another condition such as a sexually-transmitted disease. You should bring any such symptoms to the attention of your family doctor or gynaecologist right away, as prompt treatment is crucial with these issues.
There are some steps you need to take for your reproductive and genital health. One of the most important is to receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV infection often has no symptoms but is strongly associated with cervical cancer. In fact, well over 95% of cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV.
Australia started a program in 2007 to provide free HPV vaccines to girls 12 or 13 years of age and also to cover women under 26. The vaccine is simple, safe, and is one of the best measures available to prevent cervical cancer. Furthermore, the vaccine can also protect against many type of genital warts.
Australia is also on the forefront of cervical cancer screening. Begun in 1991, the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program reduced cervical cancer rates by 50% among Australian women. It offered a free Pap smear test every two years to all women between the ages of 18 and 70.
Starting 1 December 2017, the Program will be renewed with an important change. Instead of a Pap test every two years, women will now receive HPV screening every five years. While this will increase convenience, you should note that you still need to receive the screening even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, as there are a few forms of HPV that the vaccine doesn’t currently prevent.
After 1 December, you should receive your first screening two years after your last Pap test or when you turn 18, whichever comes first. It’s very important that you take advantage of this free program – as with all cancers, early detection of cervical cancer is the key to a greater chance of survival.
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