When it comes to a ‘normal vagina,’ there’s plenty of people trying to convince you that yours, well, isn’t.
It is, however, important to know what ‘normal’ is for you. Aesthetics aside, getting a grip on when a change in smell or sensation is afoot can help you to know when you’re all good – and when it’s time to go to the doctor.
‘From a health perspective, if you don’t know what a ‘normal’ vagina looks like for you, how can you possibly recognise when something changes?’ says women’s health physiotherapist and co-founder of #pelvicroar, a physiotherapist-led pelvic health campaign, Elaine Miller.
‘For instance, there are many dermatological conditions that affect your vulva; vaginal prolapse affects 50% of women over 50 – but if you don’t know what your bits normally look or feel like, then you aren’t going to be able to detect change.’
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How to know if you have a ‘normal’ vagina, for you
‘It can be very daunting for women to learn to touch themselves, particularly if they have been raised in a family that associated bodily functions with shame,’ says Miller.
The good news is it’s never too late to get to know your body and become comfortable with feeling inside yourself. Here, Miller shares her top tips for getting started.
Do I have a ‘normal’ vagina?
There is a narrow representation of women’s bodies on screen. The vulva, and especially the clitoris, is almost entirely absent from all art, literature, cinema and theatre.
The lack of variety of images and descriptions can leave women with visible labia worrying that they are not normal,’ says Miller.
Feel inside your vagina
‘In order to get familiar with your genitals and see what a ‘normal’ vagina looks like, for you, find an uninterrupted ten minutes, a mirror, a picture of genital anatomy and some lubricant,’ suggests Miller.
‘Have a look, see if you can identify the labia minora (the inside lips), the clitoris and it’s hood, the urethra where you pee from, your vagina and your anus.
Have a feel of the different parts of the vulva touch around the vaginal walls to see what feels normal for you.’
Normal vagina: your 101 on the issues to be aware of, when it comes to your health down there
Things don’t seem right down below? Read on to see if it is one of these common issues.
1/ If you’ve got ingrown hair on your vagina
‘Ingrown hairs are where the hair starts to grow back on itself so that it curls back down into the skin rather than coming out of the surface; they often form a ‘head’ like a spot does, and you can often see a hair inside,’ says London-based gynaecologist Dr Anita Mitra, aka The Gynae Geek.
‘Just because it may have a white head, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s infected or full of pus. The white stuff is sebum and oil that your skin usually makes, but is now trapped underneath the skin.’
They can be treated at home with DIY methods; by exfoliating with a hot flannel or a hot compress to ease the hair out.
Dr Mitra advises: ‘If it’s very large and very, very painful with red sore skin around or, in some rare cases, you can start to feel unwell with high fever – pop some paracetamol and ibuprofen and call your GP. You may need some antibiotic cream/tablets.
‘Folliculitis is a slightly more serious condition that can result from hair removal; rather than just one isolated hair being affected, large clusters of hair follicles may be red, inflamed, bumpy and can look like acne, or a rash.
It’s often caused by a bacterial Staphylococcus infection and needs to be seen by a doctor, and may need antibiotic/anti-fungal or steroid treatment.’
2/ If you’ve got white spots on vagina
Noticed some white or yellow-white bumps inside your vulva? This could be Fordyce spots. You can also get these spots in your mouth and cheeks and you tend to get more of them as you age.
Fordyce spots are painless and not harmful.
3/ If you’ve got a puffy and swollen vagina
This can be a symptom of vaginitis, which is when the vagina becomes inflamed. It is often a result of a yeast, viral or bacterial infection, or it can be formed from an imbalance of bacteria.
It can lead to pain, unusual discharge, irritation and light bleeding.
There are many reasons as to why your vagina may become inflamed, rough sex and tight clothing being some of the more common reasons, and it will usually mend itself, however if the symptoms last longer than a few days, it is best to seek advice from your doctor.
4/ If you’ve got spots on your vagina
Cysts on your vulva are build-ups of fluid caused by a blockage. ‘The Bartholins gland sits on the edge of the entrance to the vagina and makes a mucus-like secretion which acts as a lubricant.
If this gland opening gets blocked it will cause a cyst, because the fluid is still made, but can’t escape,’ says Dr. Anita. ‘These can range from the size of a pea to the size of a golf ball.
Typically larger means more uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous.
‘They can, however, get infected by the bacteria that normally lives on your skin in that area. This is called a Bartholin’s abscess, and they can get even larger and more painful than a cyst, making it uncomfortable to walk, sit or have sex.
They’re surprisingly common and some people may get recurrent cysts/abscesses. Smoking increases the risk of having a Bartholin’s abscess.’
5/ If your vagina smells different to normal
If there’s an odour coming from your bikini line, trust us, you’ll know something is up. The problem is, this smell could have a ton of possible causes, but you’ll want to see your doctor no matter what.
If it’s a foul-smelling discharge, it could be a bacterial infection like bacterial vaginosis (aka thrush) or trichomoniasis, says Doctor Mary Jane Minkin, M.D.
‘In that case, you may need antibiotics to treat it. Another common culprit when it comes to odour is a forgotten tampon or a stuck condom,’ says Dweck. Yes, it’s more common than you think, and your nose will definitely notice it.
6/ If you have a lump on your vagina
This could be so many things, but it’s likely not serious, says gynaecologist Alyssa Dweck, M.D., co-author of V is for Vagina.
It could be anything from an ingrown hair to a sebaceous cyst (a lesion under the skin), says Dweck.
Warm soaks are a good first line of defence, but you can also apply a little over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream if it seems inflamed, she says. If it persists or hurts, check with your doctor as it may be a sign of an infection.
7/ If you have a boil or blister on your vagina
It could be a sign of genital herpes, which can cause small blisters that burst and form sores.’Genital herpes is caused by Herpes Simplex Virus type 1 or 2; type 1 causes cold sores, and the most common way for a woman to get genital herpes is through oral sex,’ Dr Anita tells us.
‘It typically causes a tingling/itching followed by formation of small red blisters which then pop, release a clear/yellowish fluid and then form ulcers which can scab over and disappear.
‘They can cause intense pain when urinating; you may also have flu-like symptoms at the same time including aching muscles and joints, a high fever and nausea/vomiting. The first episode tends to be the worst and lasts about 2-3 weeks, while subsequent episodes may be shorter and less severe.’
However, vaginal blisters are not necessarily caused by Herpes – and the skin of your vulva and vagina can become inflamed for other reasons and even tear during rough sex, which can cause sores to form. If you’re feeling unsure, then speak to your doctor.
8/ If you have a sore vagina
Vaginal or vulva pain could be a sign of infection or STI, says Dweck, so you’ll want to check with your doctor if the feeling persists for more than day or two.
If the pain just happened once or twice after sex, it may have been from dryness—grab some lube and see if it makes a difference.
9/ If you have a shooting pain in vagina
Deeper vaginal pain, especially during sex, could be a sign of endometriosis or an ovarian cyst. Your doctor may perform a pelvic exam or ultrasound to look for the cause.
10/ If you have a numb vagina
Well, that’s certainly not supposed to happen… but Dweck says she often sees this in patients who bike a lot or take frequent indoor cycling classes.
If that’s you, make sure to invest in a nice, padded seat to avoid cycling pain below the belt.
11/ If you have itching inside your vagina
Feel like there are ants in your pants? A recurrent itch, particularly with discharge, could be a sign of a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis, says Doctor Mary Jane Minkin, M.D.
But if you’ve tried treating all that and still can’t get rid of the itch, it could be a simple skin reaction to something like your soap, a feminine wash, or even your detergent.
Minkin notes that she often gets an influx of itch-related visits around Christmas when everyone tries out the new bath salts and designer soaps that they got in their stockings.
12/ If you have a rash on your vagina
If you suffer with eczema or psoriasis, you’ll probably recognise it if it’s spread to your nether regions. ‘These can both affect the vulval area and tend to be very itchy with their own characteristic appearance,’ says Dr. Mitra.
‘Lichen planus is another kind of itchy rash which can also be red and inflamed to start with, but can cause white, scarred areas which can eventually narrow the entrance to the vagina.
Lichen sclerosis is a less common skin condition, which may or may not itch, and causes a pearly white discolouration of the vulval skin.
‘Thrush (also known as vulvovaginal candidiasis) is the most common cause of vaginal itching, but doesn’t often cause a rash.
‘If you’re certain it’s thrush or have a high suspicion, you can try and treat it with over-the-counter medication such as Canesten.
‘But if that doesn’t work, and there is a definite rash or something else you’re worried about, then you do need to go and see your GP to find out exactly what it is. The treatments may be subtly different, and may even require a small skin biopsy to determine the exact condition.’
13/ If you’re bleeding between your periods
If you’re randomly spotting between periods, it could just be a female hormones imbalance from a missed contraceptive pill, though persistent spotting is something to bring up with your doctor as it may be a sign of infection, pregnancy, or a polyp on your cervix.
If the bleeding happens after sex or comes with a discharge, it could be an STD so you’ll want your doctor to test for gonorrhoea and chlamydia, says Dweck. Of course, if it was just one time after particularly rough sex, it’s ‘probably nothing to worry about,’ she adds.
14/ If you have unusual discharge from your vagina
As you can probably guess by now, an unusual or excessive discharge can accompany tons of different issues.
But don’t panic if this is a monthly thing; ‘Most women have a physiological baseline discharge that’s supposed to be there,’ says Dweck. But if you notice a change in colour, consistency, or odour, bring it up with your doctor.
15/ If you have a dry vagina
Vaginal dryness may seem like something only older women experience, but it doesn’t discriminate as much as you think.
In fact, dryness can creep up after pregnancy or if you’re taking certain medications like antihistamines or antidepressants, says Minkin. You can also ty an over-the-counter lubricant or see your doctor if it that doesn’t help.