Many females have received the false message from society that their genitals are “dirty” and that they shouldn’t talk about them. Because of these messages, which can come from media as well as parents, girls are under the impression that any smell or discharge from their vagina is abnormal. It is perfectly natural to have a slight sweet smell that is nonoffensive. A strong, foul odor indicates a possible infection. With treatment, the infection will go away and so will the strong odor. Vaginal discharge is a necessary part of the body’s regular functioning. Normal discharge, usually clear to white, is part of the body’s self-cleaning process. As discharge leaves the body, it takes bacteria with it, which helps keep vaginal infections at bay. Discharge is also a natural lubricant, which aids in sexual intercourse. The genitals are complex, life-giving organs with many functions. Knowledge is a key factor in developing a healthy attitude about the genitalia and realizing that the genitals are not “dirty” and are basically just other parts of the body. Understanding the normal functions of the genitals also helps a person feel more comfortable with her body and stay healthy.
CHARACTERISTICS OF ABNORMAL VAGINAL DISCHARGE bad odor itching or irritation thick, like soft cheese creamy or frothy strange color, such as green, gray, or yellow bloody (not during menstruation) Washing the Genital Area It is important to regularly wash the genital area, including the anus, to help ward off infections and bad odor. Since the genital area is moist and warm, bacteria can grow easily. Excretions from the vagina, perspiration, and urine can build up making it even easier for the bacteria to grow. These bacteria can cause urinary tract infections (UTI’s) or vaginal infections. Cleaning the genital area with a mild soap and water on a regular basis will help control the bacteria growth and limit infections. Vaginal Infections Vaginal infection, or vaginitis, is most often caused by sexual contact. However, poor personal hygiene can put one at greater risk of contracting a vaginal or urinary tract infection. The following are some of the most common vaginal and urinary tract infections that can be affected by poor hygiene.
TRICHOMONIASIS. Trichomoniasis, also referred to as trich or TV, is an infection caused by a protozoan called Trichomonas vaginalis. The symptoms include a discharge that is foul-smelling, frothy, and greenish-yellow; it causes severe itching, painful and frequent urination, and, sometimes, pain in the lower abdomen.
YEAST INFECTION. A yeast infection, or candidiasis, occurs when the yeast fungus called Candida albicans, which is normally found in the vagina and anus, grows above normal levels. The result is a thick, white, cottage cheese-like discharge with itching, redness, and burning. GARDNERELLA. Gardnerella is an another bacterium that is normally found in the vagina. An infection occurs when the amount of gardnerella bacteria increases, causing symptoms such as a gray or yellow, fishy-smelling, creamy discharge and mild itching and burning. The smell may actually become worse after washing since soap reduces acidity and bacteria grow better in a less acidic environment.
URINARY TRACT INFECTIONS. Urinary tract infections (UTI’s) can occur when bacteria from the anus or vagina make their way into the urethra and bladder. Urinating helps to flush some of the bacteria from the urinary tract, but sometimes the bacteria left behind can cause an infection. Sexual intercourse, wiping from back to front, or irritants used in a bath (such as bubble bath or bath salts) are common causes of UTI’s. The symptoms include painful and frequent urination, burning on urination, blood in the urine, and a fever.
What to Wash
The area that a girl should be concerned with washing is the external genital area. The internal genitals have their own self-cleaning processes. The external female genital area, or vulva, has large lips called labia majora that protect the genital area. These lips have sweat glands that produce perspiration and glands that secrete oil. If a girl has reached puberty, these lips will also have hair on them. Beneath the labia majora are smaller lips called labia minora. In some people, the labia minora are large enough that they poke through the labia majora. This is a normal occurrence. The labia minora also contain oil and scent glands. Inside the labia minora are the openings of the urethra and vagina. Urine is expelled from the urethra. The clitoris, a small, pea-like organ that is sensitive to the touch, lies in front of the labia minora. The anus, which is not considered part of the vulva, should be washed as well. It lies in back past the lip region. The external genitalia and the anus can be washed using a wash cloth or fingers. This can be done daily in a shower or bath or standing near a sink. Special care should be taken to open the labias and wash between them. Then rinse the area with water and towel dry. Be Sure to Wipe Properly Besides washing the external genital area, it is important to wipe it with toilet paper after urinating or having a bowel movement. Solid body waste expelled by the anus contains bacteria that can cause vaginal and urinary tract infections. Therefore, the proper wiping method is from the front to back. This is so the bacteria from the anal area do not make their way to the vaginal and urethral area. A person should always wash her hands after going to the bathroom. Extra Care During Menstruation During menstruation, the lining of the uterus is shedding and menstrual blood comes out of the vagina. While menstruation can be messy, it is easily controlled with a tampon or pad. However, once the blood is exposed to the air, it can produce an odor. A strong odor should not occur unless the person does not bathe often enough. To minimize odor and staining of clothes, washing the genital area at least once a day is recommended. It is also recommended to change a tampon every four to six hours (a pad every two to four hours), which will help control the odor and the collection of blood. In the past, women would use cloth to collect their menstrual fluid. Some would wear cloth as an outer protection; others would bundle up the cloth and place it inside their vaginas for inner protection. Today, there are sanitary products for collecting menstrual fluid that are more absorbent, comfortable, and convenient. These products include tampons and pads. Choosing the kind of protection to use is a personal choice. Some women use only pads, some use tampons during the day and pads at night, and others use solely tampons. Pantiliners, small pads, are also available for light flows, discharge, or use with a tampon.
TAMPONS. Tampons are worn inside the vagina. Both nonvirgins and virgins can use them. Tampons cannot get lost inside the body or be pushed up into the uterus (the canal—called the cervical canal—to the uterus is too small for a tampon to fit through). They are made of absorbent cotton that is either scented or unscented and have a string attached for easy removal. (The deodorant tampons may cause irritation in some women.) Tampons are meant to be used only for menstrual flow, not vaginal discharge. They can come with or without applicators. For greater protection, some women wear Women have a wealth of feminine hygiene products from which to choose. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications . Reproduced by permission.) pantiliners when they use tampons. Tampons should be changed every four to six hours, and not worn more than eight hours. Otherwise, bacteria can build up in the vagina, which can cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is a rare, noncontagious disease that can be fatal. It is caused by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium, which produces a toxin resulting in symptoms that include a sudden high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, rash that looks and peels like a sunburn, achiness, and dizziness. If a person using a tampon experiences any of these symptoms, she should remove her tampon right away and contact her doctor. Researchers have found that the risk of contracting TSS is linked to the absorbency of the tampon. The higher the absorbency the higher the risk for contracting TSS. To judge the right absorbency, a woman should monitor the amount of blood found in her tampon after she removes it. If the tampon is completely red, a person should use a tampon with a higher absorbency; if the tampon has white areas, a person should use a tampon with a lower absorbency. A way to lower the risk of contracting TSS is to switch between using a tampon and using a pad. An easy way to do this is to wear tampons during the day and pads at night. PADS. Pads are worn outside the body. When they were first introduced, women had to use belts and pins to keep the pads in place. The belts and pins were uncomfortable, unattractive, and sometimes showed through clothes. Pads today have adhesive strips that allow a woman to attach a pad to her underwear. Today’s pads are also more absorbent, allowing them to be thinner and more effective. Some even have wings that wrap around the crotch of underwear, which gives greater protection. Pads can be unscented or deodorant. The deodorant can cause irritation in some women; however, many like the deodorant products, believing they help mask odor.
DOUCHES AND FEMININE HYGIENE SPRAYS. Douches and feminine hygiene sprays are products that work to mask or limit odor or wetness. Douches are sometimes used in the treatment of certain vaginal infections. They are liquid solutions that are squeezed into the vagina. A common solution is vinegar and water. Feminine sprays are deodorant sprays for the vaginal area. Doctors have warned that these feminine products are unnecessary (unless used for medical reasons) and can cause more harm than good. This is because douches and feminine sprays can change the natural acidic balance of the vagina, which can cause bacteria to grow and put a woman at risk for infection.
Be Aware of What to Wear and Other Precautions Another part of good hygiene is being aware of what to wear and making sure that anything that touches the vaginal area is clean. A girl should wear cotton underwear or at least ones with a cotton crotch. Underwear should be changed daily and after it becomes soiled or wet. It should also be absorbent and well ventilated. Tight or nylon underwear, tight pants, or pantyhose (most are available with cotton crotches that help increase ventilation) cause greater perspiration, which can allow bacteria to grow. Sitting around in a wet bathing suit will also contribute to bacteria growth. Towels should not be shared because they can pass along bacteria. Toilet seats are also breeding grounds for bacteria. It is wise to cover public toilet seats with toilet paper before sitting down. Taking these precautions can help lower the risk of infection and keep the genitals healthy.