Having a vagina is a love-hate relationship at times. If anything, we know when things feel right — and when things feel very, very wrong.
It can feel embarrassing to schedule an appointment to see your doctor about what’s going on down there. Explaining your symptoms may feel more uncomfortable than the vaginal issues you’re having.
Thankfully, gynecologists have heard almost all of it before, and oftentimes, what you’re experiencing is completely normal.
The 3 most common vaginal issues
It’s important to be familiar with your body so that you know when something feels wrong. The more familiar we are, the more we can understand what our typical baseline is. That way, when vaginal or vulvar issues arise, you can feel more comfortable about what to do.
First thing’s first: not all discharge is bad. People can have varying degrees of vaginal discharge, depending on their bodies.
Let’s normalize talking about vaginal discharge. Sometimes, people can feel self-conscious about discharge. But it's created by the microbes that normally dwell in a healthy vagina, known as the vaginal flora.
“Vaginal flora keeps our vaginas healthy,” says Dr. Sue Moreni, a gynecologist at UW Medicine Primary & Urgent Care at Ravenna. “A common complaint that we see is changes to someone’s normal discharge, such as the change of quantity, appearance, color or texture. That all can be very normal, but if there are any other symptoms like a foul odor, itching, burning or pain that accompany the discharge, that’s a reason why you may need to see the gynecologist.”
Most times, discharge is clear or milky, but what your discharge looks like might also change alongside your monthly cycle.
“It’s important to be familiar with your anatomy and your discharge,” says Moreni. “We try our best to reassure patients on our end if we’re not seeing any abnormal discharge. Our normal discharge can change during our reproductive life, and even during our cycle, but it’s always good to keep track.”
Bleeding, admittedly, can be a bit more annoying. Moreni says that it’s a great idea to go to the doctor if changes in bleeding feel abnormal.
Different or unusual bleeding depends on what your normal cycle looks like. Many people experience changes to their periods during their reproductive lifetime, but other factors can contribute such as hormonal birth control, polycystic ovary syndrome, perimenopause, uterine masses, fibroids or other health conditions.
If you’re experiencing any heavy bleeding, pain, bleeding after menopause or symptoms that worsen, it’s time to schedule an appointment.
Bumps, lumps or lesions
Moreni says that it’s not unusual to find bumps, lesions or cysts on the vagina. The skin at the vagina is different than other parts of the body, making it easier for irritation to occur.
“A lot of people get concerned when they see any bumps or lesions,” says Moreni. “These can be more benign things. But many times, people feel more comfortable seeing their gynecologist initially for the problem over their primary care doctor or dermatologist.”
It’s possible that the bumps could be an angry ingrown hair from the last time you shaved. However, if the pain is frequent and you’ve recently had unprotected sex, don’t delay scheduling an appointment to get tested for STIs.
“When the symptoms are associated with pain, that’s a good reason to go to the gynecologist because it could indicate a vaginal infection or an STI that would require medication,” says Moreni.
How to prevent vaginal issues
As much as we love our gynecologists, a visit involving stirrups isn’t fun. There are simple things you can do to avoid vaginal issues.
“For basic hygiene, less is more,” says Moreni. “Don’t clean with aggressive soaps or products — just using our hands and warm water is the best way to clean. We don’t want to change the vaginal flora with scented soaps.”
Keep in mind the big don’ts: don’t opt-out of using a condom with new partners; don’t use scented tampons, pads or lubrication; avoid douching at all costs; and remember — there’s a reason that grandma prefers the breathable cotton granny panties.
Your doctor is there to comfort, not shame you
According to Moreni, there aren’t many things that can shock them when people come to the clinic for vaginal issues.
“We’re not here in any way to pass judgement or shame women,” she says. “Try to be open — it’s not helpful if you’re withholding information from us. What products are you using? Are you having unprotected sex with multiple partners? We don’t want you to feel self-conscious.”
Vaginal changes can be a completely normal experience, but some symptoms should be discussed with a doctor.
“We can feel self-conscious about a lot of things, unfortunately, due to the society that we live in,” says Moreni. “Find a provider you’re comfortable with, and you can go from there.”