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Vaginal health is an important part of a woman’s overall health. Vaginal problems can affect your fertility, desire for sex and ability to reach orgasm. Ongoing vaginal health issues can also cause stress or relationship problems and impact your self-confidence. Know the signs and symptoms of vaginal problems and what you can do to protect your vaginal health.

What affects vaginal health?

The vagina is a closed muscular canal that extends from the vulva — the outside of the female genital area — to the neck of the uterus (cervix). Various factors can affect the health of your vagina, including:

  • Sex: Unprotected sex can result in a sexually transmitted infection. Forceful sex or an injury to the pelvic area can result in vaginal trauma.
  • Certain health conditions or treatments: Conditions, such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, might cause painful sex. Scarring from pelvic surgery and certain cancer treatments also can cause painful sex. Use of some antibiotics increases the risk of a vaginal yeast infection.
  • Birth control and feminine-hygiene products: Barrier contraceptives, such as condoms, diaphragms and associated spermicide, can cause vaginal irritation. The use of sprays, deodorants or douches may cause irritation or make existing irritation worse.
  • Pregnancy and childbirth: If you become pregnant, you’ll stop menstruating until after your baby is born. During pregnancy, vaginal discharge often increases. Vaginal tears are relatively common during childbirth. In some cases, an episiotomy — an incision made in the tissue of the vaginal opening during childbirth — is needed. A vaginal delivery can also decrease muscle tone in the vagina.
  • Psychological issues: Anxiety and depression can contribute to a low level of arousal and resulting discomfort or pain during sex. Trauma — such as sexual abuse or an initial painful sexual experience — also can lead to pain associated with sex.
  • Hormone levels: Changes in your hormone levels can affect your vagina. For example, estrogen production declines after menopause and during breast-feeding. Loss of estrogen can cause the vaginal lining to thin (vaginal atrophy) — making sex painful.

What are the most common vaginal problems?

Conditions that might affect your vagina include:

  • Sexual problems: These might include persistent or recurrent pain just before, during or after sex (dyspareunia). Pain during penetration might be caused by involuntary spasms of the muscles of the vaginal wall (vaginismus). The muscles in the pelvic floor can become tense, causing chronic pain and pain during intercourse. Vaginal dryness, often occurring after menopause, can also cause pain during intercourse.
  • Sexually transmitted infections: Various sexually transmitted infections can affect the vagina, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, syphilis and genital herpes. Signs might include abnormal vaginal discharge or genital sores.
  • Vaginitis:  An infection or change in the normal balance of vaginal yeast and bacteria can cause inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis). Symptoms include vaginal discharge, odor, itching and pain. Common types of vaginitis include bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections and trichomoniasis.
  • Pelvic floor relaxation: If the supporting ligaments and connective tissues that hold the uterus and the vaginal walls in place become weak, the uterus, bladder, rectum or the vaginal walls might slip down (prolapse). This might cause urine leakage during coughing and sneezing or a bulge in the vagina.
  • Other rare conditions: Vaginal cysts can cause pain during sex or make it difficult to insert a tampon. Vaginal cancer — which might first appear as vaginal bleeding after menopause or sex — also is a rare possibility.

What are signs or symptoms of vaginal problems?

Consult your doctor if you notice:

  • A change in the color, odor or amount of vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal redness or itching
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause
  • A mass or bulge in your vagina
  • Pain during intercourse

You might not need to see your doctor every time you have vaginal irritation and discharge, but particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with a vaginal yeast infection in the past and you’re experiencing similar signs and symptoms. However, if you choose to use an over-the-counter medication and your symptoms don’t go away, consult your doctor.