While most people generally feel very comfortable talking to their doctor about any manner of illness or concern — after all, we’ve been led to believe that they’ve heard it all before — some questions about women’s health tend to come up more in conversations among friends than they do in the doctor’s examination room.
More often than not, these questions pertain to ill-conceived notions about how a vagina should look, smell or feel, which could derive from socially imposed ideas or information that has been passed on by family members or friends.
WATCH BELOW: STIs on the rise: What Canadians should know about getting tested
“We talk about this a lot in our practice, and strive to empower women to be aware and comfortable in their bodies,” says Dr. Deborah Robertson, an obstetrician and gynecologist at St. Michael’s Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
There’s no question too embarrassing to ask when it comes to your health, but for those who still can’t bring themselves to broach the subject, we’ve compiled five essential questions about your vagina and enlisted medical professionals to sift through the truth and the misconceptions.
Why does my discharge smell sometimes?
Every woman experiences vaginal discharge — it’s a sign of fertility and indicates you have ovulated — and sometimes it can have an odour, although that’s not necessarily an indication that something’s wrong.
“I spend a lot of time explaining to women that it’s normal to have physiologic discharge and it’s normal to have some odour,” Robertson says.
Although, there are some indicators that something could be out of whack, especially if it has a fishy kind of smell.
“The most common cause of smell is due to bacterial vaginosis, which is an imbalance of the bacteria in the vagina,” says Dr. Carol Scurfield, medical director of the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg. “It’s often worse during your period or after sex.”
While it’s unknown what exactly could cause the imbalance, Scurfield says if you’ve been on a course of antibiotics that could cause it, since they’re known to kick good bacteria out of the body. Or it could be due to a forgotten tampon. In general, if the odour is persistent, always have it checked out by a doctor.
“It’s important to note, however, that vaginal secretions can have an odour,” Scurfield says. “And that’s generally attractive to other people, which is part of the reason why we have sex. Women are often more concerned about it than they need to be.”
There are also some healthy vulvar practices that Roberston espouses with her patients.
“I feel like I spend my life telling women to follow these practices: use nothing but water when you wash the vulvar area, try not to wear liners on a regular basis, don’t douche and wear plain cotton underwear. Less is definitely more when it comes to vulvar hygiene.”
Why does it itch periodically?
Itch is a complicated issue that could be attributed to a number of factors, including dermatological conditions and allergic reactions. It also varies according to age.
“For older women who are near menopause or have completed it, it could be due to dryness related to a change in secretions. There are sometimes also other changes that occur to the skin around the vagina with age,” Scurfield says. “In younger women, the most common cause is a yeast imbalance.”
She says the itching could also be due to an allergic reaction to tampons, detergent or body wash, or condoms (a latex allergy). In some rare cases, it could be a semen allergy; more commonly, however, if you’re allergic to certain foods and your partner has eaten them, his ejaculate could actually cause itching and swelling.
Women who suffer from eczema or psoriasis could also experience this in that area, while other basic conditions include lichen sclerosus or contact dermatitis.
“Often what really makes things worse is getting into a scratch/itch cycle,” Robertson says. “The important thing is to avoid scratching or rubbing the area, avoid taking hot baths and cut back on anything that could cause more itching,” including regularly wearing liners or pads, synthetic materials, or washing with harsh soaps or detergents.
She says if the itching is persistent or comes back frequently, have your doctor check it out. You could then be referred to a gynecologist or a dermatologist.
Does eating different foods change how I smell?
Although there’s not a lot of research in this field, experts say in some cases what you eat could affect your smell.
“Garlic and any sort of spices with a strong smell can get into your vaginal secretions which will result in you smelling like that food,” Scurfield says.
Ultimately, though, it’s not a big deal and you shouldn’t avoid particular foods for fear of it affecting your smell down there.
Are Brazilian bikini waxes dangerous?
Like the hair on your head, pubic hair is also subject to trends, and while some say we’re moving back to an au naturel aesthetic, bikini waxing is still a common practice.
“The risk is that you’re damaging the hair follicles and that can lead to infections or scarring, which can be problematic,” Scurfield says. “Ideally, you don’t want to wax a whole lot down there.”
However, waxing the area (even if you’re taking it all off) isn’t dangerous, per se. Nor is it necessarily frowned upon by the medical profession.
What’s the difference between a bump and a wart?
Most women can probably say they’ve had a scare at least once upon feeling something unusual in their vagina or around their vulva. And because it’s difficult to get a good look at the area, it’s easy to mistake a bump for a wart. But the two can feel markedly different.
“A wart is kind of wrinkly like cauliflower and it feels rough when you touch it,” Scurfield says. “It generally doesn’t hurt or leak, and it’s painless. It’s not necessarily a different colour, although some people say if you put vinegar on it, it’ll turn white.”
A bump, on the other hand, could be a lot of things, including a skin tag or just a normal skin fold. However, a bump can also be a sign of something more serious.
“If it hurts or is sore to the touch, get it checked out,” Scurfield says.
In some cases, it could also be a pimple, which is more likely to happen if you shave the area.
“Usually a pimple is somewhat smooth and tender, and it will often break on its own. It’s best not to poke at it too much as this could cause a worse infection — just let it run its course,” she says. “But if it’s really problematic and is causing discomfort when you walk or when you sit, it could be something that requires closer examination. See your doctor.”