There’s not much you need to do to keep your vagina healthy and clean — even though the surplus of available products claiming to support your wellness down there may have you believing otherwise.
“The vagina actually has its own microbiome. It’s supposed to have bacteria. It’s supposed to have its own balance,” Dr. Adi Katz, director of gynecology at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital, tells TODAY.com. “You’re not supposed to interfere with that.”
Because there’s so much misinformation available about the female body, it can be tough to know what to take seriously. So TODAY.com asked OB-GYNs the top mistakes they’d never make when it comes to vaginal health.
1. Never skip an annual exam and screenings
“I would not recommend skipping an annual exam,” Dr. Christine Greves, an OB-GYN in Orlando, Florida, tells TODAY.com. “Even if you think everything is fine, sometimes what you think is normal isn’t.”
An annual exam gives doctors a chance to check in with patients regarding a variety of physical and mental health concerns.
“The annual exam is how we screen for domestic violence, we screen for depression, we screen for making sure people are healthy during the breast exam, during the pelvic exam,” Greves says.
A pelvic exam helps doctors note any sort of changes, including new masses or changes to the vulvar tissue, for example. Pap smears and HPV tests are also conducted during that visit, allowing doctors to find and treat something like genital warts or even cervical cancer.
Women over 40 should not skip their mammograms.
“Breast cancer is very common, and early detection of issues is important. It makes it much easier to treat,” Katz says. “I wouldn’t skip my breast imaging, and I don’t recommend my patients skip it either.”
2. Never douche
These gynecologist never use douches, which can be used to rinse the vagina and vulva (the outside of the vagina), and urge their patients to avoid it.
“They may be harmful,” Katz says. “You can introduce bacteria that are normally in the vagina into the uterus further and create a really bad infection that can be potentially life-threatening.”
The vagina is designed to “clean itself,” Greves adds. “It’s amazing actually. We have different bacteria in there and the microbiome, and if you douche regularly, you could mess them up.”
In fact, you don’t need to clean the vagina internally or use anything more than mild soap and water on the vulva. To clean the urethra, it’s important to wash front to back to avoid getting soap in it, Greves says.
3. Never have sex with someone new without testing for STIs
You can have a sexually transmitted infection without knowing. That’s why Greves recommends that before embarking on a new relationship, both parties get screened for STIs, including HIV and hepatitis.
“Before having sex with someone, it is important to have that discussion about labs and ask if they have a history of warts or herpes,” she adds.
There’s a stigma around STIs, which can make some balk at the idea of sharing this information, but Greves encourages overcoming these hesitations.
“Just because you have an STI doesn’t mean that you’re not a wonderful person,” she says. “It’s better to know and treat it.”
It also fosters trust in the relationships because both people are open about their health, she notes.
4. Never treat unfamiliar symptoms on your own
The itchiness and pain associated conditions like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis can make you downright miserable and willing to do anything for a little relief.
While over-the-counter treatments for yeast infections and vaginosis may work, they only work for those conditions, Katz explains — so if you’re actually experiencing something else, these treatments could make your symptoms more uncomfortable.
“You can make it worse by taking the incorrect medication,” she says. “You’re just suffering longer.”
That’s why Katz recommends visiting the doctor to make sure you know what you have, with one exception: “If it’s something you’ve had repeatedly and you’re sure what it is, then you can self-treat.”
5. Never take supplements
Some products claim to balance people’s hormones while others promise to boost vaginal health. The problem is that most of these products do not work, Katz says, adding, “(Patients are) spending money that they could have spent on something else.”
Doctors know how to treat hormone changes in menopause and those associated with condition like PCOS, and in many cases, it takes pharmaceuticals, not supplements, to fix things, Katz says.
6. Never assume a heavy, painful period is normal
If your period has always been heavy and painful so you’ve never brought it up to your doctor, that’s a mistake, Greves says.
A heavy, painful period could reveal an underlying condition, such as endometriosis, adenomyosis or fibroids — which can be treated to improve quality of life and sometimes reduce bleeding and pain.
“I wouldn’t tolerate painful periods,” Greves adds. “We have medicines, we have surgeries, procedures to figure things out. We don’t not have to tolerate it.”
7. Never procrastinate fertility planning
Many women only start thinking about fertility in their mid-to-late 30s, but that’s when it starts to dip. Katz encourages considering fertility in your 20s and not waiting until you’re actually ready to have a baby to start planning, as most women see their fertility significantly decrease after 38.
“I wish that more women would ask about it or we would discuss it as a society,” she adds.
Egg freezing in your 20s or 30s can make it possible to have a family years later, Katz stresses.
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