You could perhaps unnerve off a list of ways to keep your heart healthy or lower your cancer risk. But do you know the basics of upholding vaginal health? If not, it’s time for that to change.
Basic vaginal maintenance isn’t difficult, and the payoff is big—no matter how old you are. You’ll give your sex life a boost, lower your chances of uncomfortable infections, spot early signs of cervical cancer, and more. Sounds pretty great, right?
If you’re shaking your head “yes,” keep reading. Here are six things you must do to take care of your vagina at every age:
#1. Get an annual pelvic exam.
Some experts say that yearly exams might not be necessary. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) continues to recommend annual pelvic exams for all women ages 21 and older.
Even if you aren’t due for a Pap smear (more on that in a minute), regular well visits give you a chance to talk with your doctor about things like menstrual cycle regularity and any possible hormonal imbalances, says Margaret Nachtigall, MD, associate professor of gynecology at New York University. Your doctor will also perform a breast exam—which is important, particularly if you haven’t started getting regular mammograms yet.
#2. Get a Pap smear and HPV test every five years.
The former screens for cervical cancer and the latter screens for human papillomavirus—the infection that can lead to cervical cancer. Getting just a Pap smear every three years is an alternative option. “A key benefit to doing both tests together is that it reduces the risk of missing a potential abnormality,” says Peter Rizk, MD, Head of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the University of South Alabama.
But unlike an annual exam, you don’t need to keep getting tested until the end of time. If you’ve had your last test within five years and your results have been normal for the past 10, you can stop getting Pap smears and HPV tests at 65, according to the ACOG.
#3. Practice infection prevention.
Yeast infections—fungal infections marked by burning, itching, and thick white discharge—are maybe the first to come to mind. Indeed, three out of four women will get one at some point in their lives, according to a Clinical Microbiology Reviews report. But bacterial vaginosis—a bacterial infection marked by grayish or yellow discharge and a “fishy” odor—is nearly as common, affecting some 3 million women each year.
Both problems can happen at any age. They’re most common in pre-menopausal women though; say Allison Hill, MD and Yvonne Bohn, MD, of Los Angeles Obstetricians and Gynecologists. To minimalize your odds, they recommend practicing a few key healthy habits:
- Wear breathable cotton underwear and change out of workout clothes or bathing suits ASAP, to keep moisture and bacteria from building up.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods, and consider taking a probiotic supplement if you’re prescribed antibiotics.
- Bathe with a mild soap that’s free of colors or fragrances, which can irritate the vagina. One to try: Cetaphil Ultra Gentle Body Wash ($9.79, amazon.com).
#4. Be smart about UTIs
Urinary tract infections are most likely to affect women who are sexually active, particularly those who use birth control methods like diaphragms (which can trap bacteria) or spermicidal agents (which can change vaginal pH). “However, we do see them recur in older women after menopause, when lower estrogen levels cause the muscles and tissues surrounding the urethra to weaken,” Hill and Bohn say. That can have an impact on vaginal pH, upping the risk of infection. (Learn the symptoms of a UTI here.)
No matter when they strike, the characteristic burning and frequent urge to pee is never fun. Take steps to prevent UTIs by:
- Staying hydrated and urinating before and after sex, which helps flush bacteria out of the urinary tract.
- Wiping from front to back after going to the bathroom, to keep bacteria at bay.
- Wearing breathable cotton underwear, to prevent moisture and bacteria from getting trapped. (Our editors love Hanky Panky’s organic cotton styles.)
- If you use a diaphragm or spermicidal agent, reconsider your birth control method.
- Drink green tea, which is packed with antioxidants thought to help fight bacteria, according to Frontiers in Microbiology findings. (And unlike cranberry juice, has zero calories or sugar.)
#5. Do Kegel exercises.
Kegels are an easy way to prevent or ease incontinence, which most frequently affects women after giving birth and post-menopause. Kegels strengthen your pelvic floor (the band of muscles that hold your uterus and bladder in place above your vagina) and ward off leakage and frequent urges to urinate. It can also make sex more pleasurable, say experts with the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
And doing them really is simple. To give it a try, contract your pelvic floor muscles just like you would if you were trying to stop the flow of urine while peeing. (But don’t actually do it while you’re peeing, since it can up the risk of infection.) Hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then release. After you get the hang of it, work up to 5 sets of 10 repetitions per day, NAMS says. (You can also try these 4 essential moves to strengthen your pelvic floor.)
#6. Don’t let dryness bring you down.
The problem can happen post-menopause when lower estrogen levels cause the glands at the entrance of the vagina to produce less lubrication. This can make sex painful, but it can also cause burning or itching while exercising, standing, or even sitting.
Some experts say that eating slightly processed soyfoods like organic edamame, tofu, or tempeh could help fight dryness since they contain estrogen-mimicking compounds called isoflavones. Using a vaginal lubricant during sex can help too, “however this doesn’t usually eliminate the burning or itching at other times,” Nachtigall says.
That’s why Nachtigall recommends seeing your gynecologist. “Dryness is a very treatable disorder,” she says. Your doc can recommend options like an estrogen ring, tablet, or cream. Femarelle, a non-hormonal dietary supplement, or even local laser treatments like Mona Lisa Touch may be solutions worthy of investigation.