We’ve spent the last few weeks re-examining how we think about and talk about our vaginal health. First, we addressed how the language used to talk about vaginal health can be problematic. Then, we delved into how our bodies give us important clues about our health if we approach these signs without judgment. For the final part of this series, we’re going to share some actionable tips on how to regularly touch base with your body through a quick and easy vaginal health self-check.
Women the world over grow up learning how to do a monthly breast exam, but they are rarely taught to check in with their vaginas. The good news? Many of the same reasons to check on your breast health also apply to vaginal health. Try these four steps listed below on a monthly basis, maybe even at the same time you check on perform your breast exam.
DISCLAIMER: This self-check is not intended to replace your regular pelvic exams with an OB/GYN or general practitioner. Instead it is a way to stay in tune with what’s happening with your intimate health and detect unusual symptoms if/when they first occur.
How to Perform a Vaginal Health Self-Check: The Four Steps
Just like a breast self-check, we suggest starting your vaginal self-check by looking in a mirror. Conditions ranging from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV) to inflammatory skin disorders like lichen sclerosus can first show up as changes in the appearance of your vulva (the outer, visible part of your vagina). If you get familiar with what your vulva looks like in its healthy state, you will be better able to detect if and when something unusual appears.
To do this, you’ll need to find a small mirror and a comfortable place to either sit on the floor or stand with one foot up (such as on a chair or a closed toilet seat). Be sure to wash your hands and remove any undergarments beforehand. Once you’re situated, spread your legs, and using one hand to hold the mirror, carefully use your other hand to examine your vulva and inner labia.
Are there any unusual bumps, rashes, or discoloration on the skin? Do you see any changes from the last time you performed this check? Is there any abnormal discharge in the vaginal entrance? If so, consider following up with a medical professional, especially if combined with other symptoms listed in this article.
Next, ask yourself if you’ve detected any abnormal or off-odors lately. Vaginas are meant to smell, but it is usually a light smell – not one that is fishy, metallic, or otherwise abnormal for you. An easy way to get clued into your odor is to pay attention when you’re urinating or when changing pantiliners or panties. Your partner may even be able to help with this step of the vaginal self-check.
What to consider: If you get a period, where are you at right now during your cycle? Your scent can change as you move through the menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases. Also, are you sexually active? A strong odor can be a sign of an infection, particularly if you engage in unprotected intercourse. Certain STIs such as trichomoniasis can cause an intense, unpleasant odor, and a condition called bacterial vaginosis (BV) can show up as a “fishy” odor.
If you have a vagina, you have most likely experienced your share of discharge (or fluids from your uterus, cervix, and vagina). By this definition, menstrual “blood” is discharge. So is the thicker mucus that accompanies ovulation, as well as lubrication from being sexually aroused. Your cervical fluids can change throughout the month and may increase or decrease due to birth control, frequency of intercourse, or medications. For this reason, the presence of discharge is not necessarily alarming. It’s helpful, though, to check in and ask what kind of discharge you’ve seen in the last month. Has there been more (or less) of it? Does it have an off look to it? Is it thicker or does it have an unusual color?
This is important because both yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis can produce atypical discharge. BV tends to result in a thin, gray, and foamy discharge; whereas the discharge from a yeast infection is likely to be white or cream-colored, and it will be thicker, with the consistency of cottage cheese.
As with odor, the key is to look for discharge that’s unusual for you. If you’ve had BV or a vaginal yeast infection before, you might think you can just treat it yourself and not worry about checking in with your doctor. However, because BV and yeast infections sometimes show similar symptoms, it’s easy to start treating the wrong thing and have to backtrack when the infection doesn’t go away, gets worse, or comes back soon after treatment.
Lastly: Have you been experiencing any kind of discomfort in the past month? Take your time to consider all the symptoms that can make you uncomfortable like itching, vulvar pain, vaginal pain or pain with sex, dryness, or skin sensitivity. Life-stage factors may play a role with these symptoms, like whether you’re going through menopause, pregnancy and post-partum, or menstruation. But itching and pain may also be a sign of vaginal pH imbalance or overall vaginal microbiome imbalance.
Possible causes of vaginal discomfort:
- Pelvic floor disorders
- Pregnancy and post-partum
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Infections, such as bacterial vaginosis or STIs
Your OB/GYN or general practitioner can help you determine the cause of these symptoms and they may recommend treatment with prescription medication or over-the-counter products that are pH-balanced and vagina-friendly. You may also be referred to a specialist such as a pelvic floor physical therapist, depending on the root cause.
I Detected an Unusual Sign or Symptom. Now What?
As we mentioned in part two of this series, our bodies communicate with us regularly, but it’s important to remember that what you see with a hand mirror – often at an awkward angle – may not be a holistic view of what’s happening. Even doctors are rarely able to draw conclusions on appearance and symptoms alone. They frequently rely on important screening tools and take samples that can be evaluated under a microscope or processed at a lab.
If you complete this vaginal self-check and discover any unusual symptoms, we recommend checking in with your medical provider.
How to Make This Vaginal Health Self-Check a Part of Your Routine
We believe your vaginal health is worth the time spent on this regular self-check. As you get more and more familiar with what’s “normal” for you, you'll be able to better detect when something needs your attention.
Try carving out time by adding a recurring appointment to your calendar and setting a date with yourself. You can add it to your regular self-care routine along with your monthly breast exam. Turn it into a ritual with a favorite cup of tea and lighting candles.