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While recent research has helped experts better understand that good bacteria contributes to a healthy vagina, women still may be confused.
Does this mean they should eat yogurt or take probiotics? What if there’s an odor? What exactly makes a vagina healthy?
“The vagina it is primarily populated by lactobacillus, the good guy bacteria,” Dr. Lauren Streicher, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause, told TODAY. “Normal pH is between 3.5 to 4.5. With that range you don’t get any infiltration of bad bacteria and you have a normal lubrication and odor.”
Maintaining a healthy vagina is easy
While maintaining normal pH levels and the right amount of lactobacillus in the vagina might seem challenging, gynecologists say it’s super simple.
“You don’t have to do anything. You don’t need to wash inside. You don’t need to douche. The vagina normally maintains a healthy level of lactobacillus,” Streicher said.
Lactobacillus is a probiotic found in yogurt and in supplement form. Some women may mistakenly think consuming lactobacillus, slathering yogurt on their bodies or taking probiotics might make for healthier or cleaner vaginas. There’s little evidence any of this helps.
“We are lacking good data about probiotics,” Dr. Christine Greves, an OB-GYN at the Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology at Orlando Health, told TODAY.
There’s not even a lot of evidence that probiotics are actually effective for GI health. And eating yogurt is no better.
“The lactobacillus in yogurt is not the same,” Streicher said. “Some people … put yogurt in their vagina and they should not.”
This means a diet rich with yogurt or probiotics can’t protect women from bad bacteria infiltrating the vagina.
When bad bacteria grows
Sometimes bad bacteria overgrows in the vagina. It doesn’t mean women are dirty. There are different reasons why the vaginal bacteria might be out of whack, but often intercourse is to blame.
“Sex is one of the biggest culprits. Semen has a high pH in the 7 or 8 range” Streicher said. “It is because of that alteration in pH which causes [bad bacteria] to move in and create that funky smell.”
Sometimes when unhealthy bacteria overpopulates the vagina women might notice a strong fishy odor and a grayish discharge, signs of bacterial vaginosis. While the smell and discharge might feel embarrassing, it’s treatment is simply an antibiotic.
“There is no reason to be ashamed because it happens. It doesn’t mean they’re dirty,” Greves explained.
Yeast infections can also disrupt the normal bacteria and cause a beer or bread-like odor. About 30 percent of women have yeast that naturally occurs in their vaginas, Greves said. But when the yeast outgrows the good bacteria women can experience itching and a thick white discharge.
“It can affect the vagina and vulva,” Streicher said. “Yeast is a fungus. Everyone has yeast on their bodies and in their GI tract. A little bit is fine and is not going to create a problem.”
Women don’t experience yeast infections nearly as much as they think, though.
“Women are mistaken in their diagnosis of yeast infection at least 40 percent of the time,” Streicher said.
Women noticing a sour or stale smell along with an excessive discharge might have something known as trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection caused by the Trichomonas vaginalis parasite.
“It is a really bad discharge, really prominent or different than they ever experienced,” Greves explained. “It’s a sour or stale-type odor.”
While it might be distressing, it is also easily treated with antibiotics.
Another reason might experience an odor and irritation? A forgotten tampon.
“Sometimes someone puts a tampon on it and forget about it and three weeks later it gets worse and worse,” Streicher said. “If you smell like the zoo, the first thing to do is make sure you don’t have a retained tampon.”
While the experts agree that many women worry about vaginal odor, it is normal for a slight smell to exist.
“It shouldn’t be rancid … It has a mild odor,” Streicher said. “Some women think the vagina is a terrible nasty place and it is disgusting and dirty. The truth is that some odor is OK.”