When it comes to the female anatomy, most women would struggle to identify everything ‘down there’, and only a minority feel around to check all is well.
But a leading gynecologist warns this ignorance is what leads to most of her patients’ infections.
The figures are stark: a new survey revealed that approximately 54 percent of women are unfamiliar with their vulva, which may be due to the fact that 76 percent say they weren’t taught about the specifics of their anatomy while growing up.
The study conducted by women’s intimate health brand Canesten builds on prior research that found 62 percent of women were unable to locate the vagina correctly.
Speaking with Daily Mail Online, gynecologist Dr. Lauren Streicher of Northwestern University breaks down the specifics many people are too nervous to ask, including how women should examine themselves, and the key areas they should be more acquainted with.
1. Women aren’t examining themselves down there
The survey by UK-based company Canesten also revealed that 41 percent of women never they never check their vaginal area, while 44 percent said they would be unable to identify abnormal changes and 45 percent said they are concerned about their vaginal health.
‘These findings don’t surprise me,’ said Dr. Streicher, who was not involved in the study.
‘Most women have absolutely no idea about the specifics of their anatomy. If I were to give them a quiz on it, they’d fail.’
Dr. Streicher said many women aren’t even sure where the penis is inserted, where urine comes out and what normal vaginal discharge looks like.
In fact, a study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology revealed that 62 percent of women didn’t know where their vagina was located.
She said it’s particularly alarming that women don’t examine themselves frequently because they won’t be able to spot significant changes on their vulva, their external genitalia.
Dr. Streicher said vulvas come in various sizes, shapes, and colors and changes occur frequently.
She said when first-time patients who never examine themselves ask her about whether something is odd – such as having no labia minora – the smaller inner folds of the vulva – it’s difficult to decide whether this is a significant change or if it’s just always looked like that.
‘The problem is women don’t know what’s normal,’ said Dr. Streicher, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine. ‘And if you don’t know what’s normal, you don’t know what’s abnormal.’
She added that women who go through menopause may see a change in the color of their tissue, and changes occur after women experience pregnancy. These changes are normal.
2. Many women don’t know what causes vaginal infections
Not only do women not know the ‘ABC’s’ of their vagina, the survey revealed that many women can’t recognize common vaginal conditions like thrush, cystitis, bacterial vaginosis and vaginal dryness.
When it comes to conditions like bacterial vaginosis, inflammation caused by the overgrowth of bacteria naturally found in the vagina, about 52 percent of women said they weren’t sure what it was, despite it being one of the most common vaginal infections impacting one in three women between the ages 15 and 44.
Bacterial vaginosis is caused by the imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘harmful’ bacteria that are normally found in a woman’s vagina.
Symptoms of this condition include burning while urinating, vaginal irritation and itchiness.
People with this condition may also experience white or gray vaginal discharge that may be foamy or watery. According to Mayo Clinic, some women experience a strong fish-like odor, especially after sex.
Yeast infection or thrush
Although nearly 75 percent of all women will have at least one yeast infection in their lifetime, about 14 percent of those surveyed believed it can be caused by bad hygiene, such as not washing enough.
However, Dr Streicher said these conditions are almost never caused by hygiene.
In fact, some this condition is caused by the organism Candida albicans, a fungus that is normally present on the skin and in mucous membranes like the vagina and mouth. An overgrowth of this organism can lead to a yeast infection.
This condition can be caused antibiotic use, which can changes the pH balance of the vagina, resulting in the overgrowth of yeast.
Pregnancy, uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy and oral sex can also increase someone’s risk of a yeast infection.
Dr. Streicher added that applying fragrances, douching or using scented body washes can upset the pH balance of the vagina.
3. Women shouldn’t treat bacterial odors with fragrance
Interestingly enough, the survey revealed 80 percent of women were unaware that douching and using scented washes can upset the vaginal area’s pH balance which can increase the risk of infections like bacterial vaginosis.
This may be due to the unpleasant odor associated with the condition.
The research reveals more than 27 percent of them have sprayed perfume or deodorant onto their intimate area to hide the unpleasant odor caused by bacterial vaginosis, which can be easily treated with over-the-counter solutions.
The problem with this is that spraying perfume will extend the stay of vaginosis.
Dr. Streicher added that using scented wipes or spraying perfume on the vulva won’t get rid of the odor because it’s an internal issue.
‘If you have bad breath and you try to solve it by washing your face, your breath will still stink,’ Dr. Streicher said.
She added that it’s important for women to get treated for bacterial vaginosis because if not, they put themselves at risks for other serious medical conditions including preterm delivery, post-hysterectomy infection, and an increased risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.
They also have an increased risk of infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease.
4. Why you should know every part of the vagina
Dr. Streicher said the main parts of their vulva women should be familiar with are the labia minora (labium minus), the clitoris, prepuce, or the hood over the clitoris, and the urethra.
She said they should examine those areas frequently so that when changes do occur, they’d be aware of them. They can do this by using a mirror.
However, she warned that not all changes mean ‘something serious’ – for instance, some people may experience inflammation on their vulva from shaving – but someone has a new rash that’s not going away, that might be a problem.
Other things people should look out for is discoloration, swelling, pain, and irritation associated with any parts of the vaginal area.
According to Mayo Clinic, redness or itching, pain during intercourse and bleeding between periods can be a sign of vaginal problems.
Dr. Streicher said the findings are troubling and that women need to be more self-aware when it comes to their own intimate health.
For instance, conditions like bacterial vaginosis – characterized by abnormal vaginal discharge, itching, and odor – can increase a woman’s chance of developing a sexually transmitted infection if left untreated.
She said many vaginal conditions like yeast infections are ‘unnecessary’ and can adversely impact a woman’s confidence.
If they knew the ‘ABCs’ of their vaginal health, they could avoid many of these inconveniences.
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