Your ob/gyn is a treasure trove of information that can make your vagina more deserving of the “Happiest Place on Earth” tagline than a Disney theme park. But if you typically aim to get in and out of the stirrups as quickly as possible when you see your gyno, you might not be benefitting from these visits as much as you could be.
“You should ask your doctor questions,” Jessica Shepherd, M.D., a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, tells SELF. “Don’t be nervous—this is what we do.”
That said, we also know that it’s not always reasonable (or affordable) to schedule an appointment with your gyno every single time you have a vaginal health question. So, in addition to having personal discussions with your own gynecologist at least once a year, you can read up on the important intel experts told us to pass along for them. Here are 11 things gynecologists really want you to know.
1. Don’t clean your vulva with anything special, and don’t clean your vagina at all.
Quick anatomy lesson: Your vulva consists of your external genitalia, like your pubic mound, labia, and clitoris (although your clitoris also extends within your body, too). Your vagina is the internal tube that allows for vaginal childbirth and penetration during sex.
You really don’t need to do anything special for your vulva. “There’s a lot of misconception about how to clean one’s genitals,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “But don’t use special scrubs or washes—they can be irritating. Mild soap and water are really all you need.”
As for your vagina, you can completely leave that alone. Experts often compare the vagina to a self-cleaning oven for a reason; unless something is wrong, it cleans itself with discharge. No need to try to help it out with any products. That definitely includes douches, which can alter the pH of your vagina and lead to irritation and infection.
2. Keep an eye on your discharge—unusual colors or consistencies can signal a problem.
Discharge is totally normal, and it can change throughout your menstrual cycle. While some vaginal discharge is due to your vagina lubricating and cleaning itself, much of that discharge is actually cervical mucus, which can look different depending on what’s happening in your body.
When an egg starts maturing to prepare for ovulation, your body typically releases more cervical mucus, which can look white, yellow, or cloudy, and feel sticky, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As you get closer to ovulation, your discharge will become clear and slippery, kind of like raw egg whites, to help sperm reach a mature egg more easily. This is when you’re most fertile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes. Around four days later, if you have a typical cycle, you’ll see less cervical mucus and it will likely be sticky and cloudy again, and then you might have a few days with even less of the stuff after that. Then the cycle begins all over again.
Taking hormonal birth control with estrogen to suppress ovulation can impact this discharge cycle and make it less likely that you’ll see as much fluctuation throughout the month, Dr. Shepherd says. Non-hormonal and progesterone-only methods probably won’t impact your normal discharge rhythm because they don’t shut down ovulation altogether, Dr. Shepherd says.
Again, this is all normal. But if your discharge starts to resemble something like cottage cheese, it could be a sign of a yeast infection. If it’s green, gray, yellow, or white, it could be bacterial vaginosis (which happens when the “bad” bacteria called anaerobes start outnumbering the “good” bacteria, aka lactobacilli, in your vagina) or trichomoniasis (a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to foul-smelling discharge). No matter what you think the problem may be, weird-looking discharge is a sign to see a doctor.
3. It’s normal for your vagina to have a slight scent, but when it becomes too strong or smells off, you may need medical attention.
Your vagina is not a cookie or a flower, so it’s not going to smell like one. Everyone’s vaginal smell varies based on factors like their discharge, their vagina’s bacterial flora, and their hygiene practices, Dr. Shepherd says, and it can also be a sign that something’s wrong.
A fishy or foul-smelling odor smell can signal an infection like bacterial vaginosis, but a weird smell down there doesn’t always mean you have some sort of infection. It can even be due to something like leaving a tampon in for too long. In any case, if things smell off down there, that’s a clear sign that you should see your doctor to figure out what’s up.
4. Always. Wipe. Front. To. Back. (Seriously, always.)
If you’re being extra efficient by peeing and pooping during the same bathroom trip, there’s one rule you absolutely need to follow: “Wipe in front and then wipe in back,” Dr. Streicher says. Doing it the opposite way could transfer bacteria from your rectum to your urethra, where it can cause a urinary tract infection.
5. If you’re experiencing vaginal itching and burning, don’t just assume it’s a yeast infection.
Sure, itching and burning are hallmark symptoms of a yeast infection. But these could just as easily be signals of bacterial vaginosis or a sexually transmitted infection, Carrie Coleman, M.D., an ob/gyn at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. “It can be confusing,” Dr. Coleman says. That’s why she recommends talking to your doctor for an evaluation, especially if you keep self-treating “yeast infections” that don’t seem to go away. That could be a sign you’re dealing with something else entirely.
6. You don’t have to wear underwear to keep your vagina healthy.
It’s not like your entire vulva will plop onto the ground and roll away if you don’t. “People need to appreciate that underwear is to protect your clothes [from discharge],” Dr. Streicher says. On the flip side, it can also protect your delicate bits if you happen to be wearing something rough, like jeans.
If your discharge is usually pretty light and you’re not wearing anything tight made of a harsh material that could irritate your skin down there, feel free to go commando if you want. In fact, that’s what Dr. Shepherd recommends people do at night. Anything you can do to reduce sweat being trapped around the vulva is a good thing, since that can lead to a yeast infection, she says.
7. But when you do wear underwear, make it a habit to choose cotton options and change them ASAP after working out.
While you could work out in silk underwear if you feel like being especially fancy, it’s really best to wear cotton because it allows more air to pass through, Dr. Coleman says. Again, you want to make it less likely for a ton of sweat to just sit there against your vulva, increasing your risk of developing a yeast infection, she says. That’s also why she recommends changing your underwear after you work out.
Of course, you’re not guaranteed to get a yeast infection if you decide to lounge around for an episode of The Crown after a hard workout, but it’s best to get into the habit of changing as soon as you can, just to be safe, Dr. Coleman says.
8. Don’t use products like petroleum jelly or oil for lube.
Lube can really help make sure you have a good time in bed, but it’s a really bad idea to use whatever you have handy if you’re out of the bottled stuff. “Try to use things that are specially made to be used as a lubricant,” Dr. Streicher says. “Anything else can throw off the pH balance [of your vagina] and cause problems.”
While some lubes are indeed oil-based, that’s different from just grabbing whatever you can find in your pantry and having a go at it. Here’s what else you should know about lube before you dive in.
9. If you see blood clots bigger than a quarter during your period, talk to your doctor.
Clots can look like an alien form just emerged from your body, but they’re typically pretty normal, Dr. Coleman says. Clots likely form for two reasons, Dr. Shepherd says: When blood stays in one area for too long (like when it pools in your vagina while you sleep), it can clump up and form a clot. And when your flow is heavy and moving quickly, your body’s natural anticoagulants may not be able to keep up and prevent clots from forming, she explains.
That said, regularly passing clots larger than a quarter could be a sign that you have an underlying condition causing heavy bleeding, like uterine fibroids or endometriosis, so you should flag them for your doctor. Treatments like hormonal birth control can limit how much your uterine lining thickens and help prevent heavy bleeding.
10. If you’re switching between anal and vaginal sex or vice versa, use a new condom each time.
Your anus can carry strains of bacteria that can cause irritation or infection in your vagina, which is why it’s important to get a new condom if you’re going from anal to vaginal sex, Dr. Shepherd says. Likewise, your vagina also has a bacterial flora that can irritate your anus, so it’s also important to change up your condoms if you’re switching from vaginal to anal sex, she says.
11. Get tested for sexually transmitted infections regularly—whether you’re in a monogamous relationship or not.
The recommendations for how often you should get tested vary based on the sexually transmitted infection in question and the status of your sex life. No matter your situation, it’s important to get tested as often as your doctor recommends based on your risk factors. Yes, that’s true even if you’re in a monogamous relationship, Dr. Shepherd says. It’s not like getting tested means you automatically think your partner is cheating. “STIs are not always symptomatic,” she points out, so you may have picked one up before you got in a monogamous relationship and just not have noticed it.
Early STI detection is crucial. Testing and diagnosis will help you get rid of any symptoms and figure out a treatment plan with your medical practitioner. When left untreated, conditions like gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can lead to chronic pelvic pain and fertility issues. This is not something you want to mess with, so stay on top of your STI testing schedule.