What women need to know about vaginal health

Gynecologist Dr. Lauren Streicher clears up popular misconceptions about women's bodies.

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By Kerry Breen

Dr. Lauren Streicher, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause, stopped by TODAY this morning to help clear up popular myths about women's bodies.

During her segment, she dispelled six misconceptions about women's health.

1. The vulva and the vagina are not the same thing

Streicher explained that "90% of the time," women use the wrong terms for their genitals and explained the difference between the two body parts.

"When a woman tells me she has a sore or a rash on her vagina, 100% of the time, the sore is actually on her vulva," she said. "[The vulva is] the external genital tissue, as opposed to the internal structure that no one sees, unless you are a gynecologist or happen to own a speculum."

Streicher added that the distinction between two body parts is important, and said that when it comes to health, correct knowledge is key.

"To be "V" informed, women need to know where their "V" is," she said. "We still live in a society in which 'good girls' are not supposed to be sexual, feel pleasure, or acknowledge that they have genitals, much less know or say the proper anatomic terms out loud."

2. If you have an unpleasant odor, a wash won't make it go away.

Streicher said that as both a professional gynecologist and as a woman, she hates the idea that women's genitals are "in constant need of cleaning and perfuming," and said that many popular market products that are designed to 'reduce or mask odor' won't resolve the underlying issue.

"If there is an unpleasant odor, it is almost always a result of BV, caused by an imbalance of bacteria inside the vagina," she said. BV is bacterial vaginosis, a condition when the unhealthy bacteria overpopulates the vagina and causes a fishy odor and discharge.

"That's why all the 'feminine washes' that line the shelves of your pharmacy are worthless," said Streicher. "It's like washing your face and expecting bad breath to go away. If there is an odor, find out what is causing the odor and treat it."

Speaking of those pharmacy washes, Streicher emphasized the vagina's self-cleaning properties.

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"There is no need to clean your genitals externally using anything other than simple soap and water," she said. "There is never a need to clean your genitals internally."

3. If you use it to make lunch, don't use it to make love

Streicher said that it's common for women to experience vaginal dryness at some point in their lives, but the solution can never be found in a kitchen cabinet. Popular lubricant suggestions, like coconut oil, can be dangerous, though, and lead to infection.

"While coconut oil sounds like a good solution, oils are associated with an increase in vaginal infections," she explained. "They are not very slippery, and they are not condom compatible."

Water-based lubricants may not be the best solution, either.

"Most of the popular water-based vaginal lubricants have a number of additives which are actually damaging and dehydrating to vaginal tissues," she said.

Instead, the better solution lies in another over-the-counter option. Streicher recommends using a silicone lubricant, since it is "super slippery" and won't cause infections or damage tissues.

4. Your pelvic floor would love to have a personal trainer

Kegel exercises are prescribed as a solution to a leaky bladder, but "studies show that the majority of women do not perform Kegels correctly or consistently, so they don't work," Streicher explained.

The real solution would be a pelvic floor physical therapist, who is literally a personal trainer for your pelvic floor. However, not many women have access to those sorts of services, so Streicher recommends using an over the counter device to facilitate home exercises.

"There are dozens of balls, beads, cones, and other devices that claim to strengthen kegel contraction and relaxation exercises, but there is minimal scientific evidence to support their claims," she said, warning potential users to be sure that they select an FDA-cleared option that provides both muscle stimulation and biofeedback to reduce urinary and bowel leakage.

5. Do you need a pap smear every year?

Even if it's a "no pap" year, that doesn't mean you should avoid the gynecologist entirely.

"A pap test is only a screening for cervical cancer," said Streicher. "You are still the owner of a vulva and a vagina and if you have ditched your gynecologist, chances are no one is looking to make sure everything is healthy and normal."

Conditions like sexually transmitted infections, vulvar or vaginal cancer, fibroids, and endometriosis are just a few conditions that have nothing to do with your cervix or a pap smear, but could be spotted by a gynecologist.

"Despite what your internist or hairdresser has told you, your V deserves the same attention you give other parts of your body," said Streicher.

6. Is it safe to remove pubic hair?

Streicher cautions against removing pubic hair, since the hair serves biological purposes.

"The purpose of genital hair is to provide lubrication and decrease friction during sex," she said. "It also keeps the genitals warm. Before central heating, it would be pretty much impossible for our ancestors to expose their genitals, if conditions were frigid."

Streicher also warned that many social norms around shaving or removing genital hair have been created by industries that profit from hair removal.

"A multi-million dollar industry has evolved around pubic fashion, giving you no shortage of options," she said. "Waxing, shaving, electrolysis, clipping, chemical depilatories, and laser removal are all at your disposal. While professional waxing, laser, and electrolysis results in the least amount of irritation, allergy, or complications, these methods can be expensive, not to mention painful."