Taking care of ‘down there’

The Vulva – what’s normal?

Vulva is the general name given to all the external parts of the female genitals. Each woman’s vulva is unique in size and appearance, with no two looking the same. It is normal for there to be noticeable differences between the left and right side of the vulva, especially the labia minora (the inner lips). Images seen online are often heavily edited, making the vulva look symmetrical and childlike.

Because it is difficult for women to see their own vulva, many women do not know what it looks like. If you don’t know what your vulva looks like, use a mirror to have a look. Once you are familiar with what your vulva looks like, it will be easier to detect any changes in the skin, such as colour or texture.

What is Vulval irritation?

Any itching, burning or discomfort of the vulva can be described as vulval irritation. The skin of the vulva is extremely delicate, making it susceptible to a wide range of conditions.

Vulval irritation is relatively common in women of all ages, with skin conditions and infections often being the cause. A small part of the vulva or sometimes the entire vulva can be affected.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • redness and/or swelling
  • burning and/or itching
  • skin cracking or splitting (also known as fissuring)
  • whitening of skin
  • associated vaginal inflammation and/or discharge

What to do if you have vulval irritation?

If you are experiencing vulval irritation, it is important to see your doctor so they can work out what is causing your symptoms. Don’t attempt to diagnose or treat the problem yourself. There are many causes of vulval irritation, so finding an effective treatment depends on knowing the cause.

If your symptoms don’t clear up with treatment, or if they keep coming back, make sure you go back to your doctor. During your appointment, your doctor should examine your vulva; it can be hard to diagnose vulval conditions without actually seeing what’s going on. If your doctor does not check your vulva, it is appropriate to ask for an examination.

Most cases of vulval irritation improve with treatment, but there are a few rare conditions that can become serious if left untreated. So if you are experiencing vulval symptoms, visit your doctor to find out what’s really going on, and start taking care of ‘down there’.

Here are top tips to keep your vulva in good health:

  • Wear cotton underwear
  • Avoid G-string underwear. G-strings and close-fitting underwear – especially synthetic – can encourage the transport of bacteria from the rectum into the vagina
  • Change out of wet swimwear as soon as you can, and avoid staying in tight sweaty leggings
  • Choose your period products carefully – where possible, go for 100% cotton pads, tampons and liners
  • Change your pads, tampons and liners frequently
  • When going to the toilet, always wipe from front to back
  • Don’t use soaps, douches or other cleaning products on your vulva or vagina – warm water washing is enough. Your vagina is self-cleaning!

Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health
jeanhailes.org.au
1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)

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