What this week is all about
Listening time: 2 mins 30
Listening time: 2 mins 30
Get to know the basics and have your vulval and vaginal health questions answered.
Find out what’s normal when it comes to vulval health, what causes irritation, how it can be managed and handy health tips to keep in mind.
There are two main types of regular health screening checks for taking care of your gynaecological health. For some women, getting these health checks can feel awkward, but having a regular doctor, going to a women’s health centre or sexual health clinic, or asking your female friends for their recommendations can make the process easier.
Some women mistakenly believe that the Cervical Screening Test is testing for ovarian cancer; however, this is not the case. Read more on ovarian cancer in the next section.
The Cervical Screening Test replaced the Pap test in 2017. It is done in the same way as the Pap test, where your doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix.
Regular cervical screening tests are essential for all women who have ever had sex. Testing starts when you’re 25 years old and continues until you’re 74 years.
You need to have a test every five years (if your results are normal). Getting tested is essential for anyone with a cervix, including:
Get the facts and learn more via our Cervical Screening Test fact sheet.
And along with practising safer sex, STI checks are a vital part of protecting the health of your vulva, vagina, ovaries and uterus.
If you’re aged under 30 years and having sex, it’s recommended to have an STI check once a year or more.
If you’re aged over 30 years, an STI check is recommended before a new sexual partner or with a change in partners.
But no matter your age, there are many situations when an extra STI check is a good idea.
For example, you may have found out that a current or previous sexual partner has an STI, or you may be experiencing symptoms such as a change in vaginal discharge or burning/stinging when urinating (weeing).
Or, you may be visiting the doctor for something else – such as a Cervical Screening Test – and your doctor suggests doing an STI check at the same time.
If you're not sure when to have STI checks, or how often, talk to your doctor – everyone's situation is different and it's important you get the checks that are right for you.
Remember: STI checks aren’t anything to feel embarrassed or ashamed about; they’re a normal part of healthcare. If you’re feeling unsure about your next check-up, arm yourself with confidence and get to know the process step-by-step. Read our article 'What happens when you go for an STI check'.
When left undiagnosed and untreated for too long, some STIs (such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea) can spread to your uterus and fallopian tubes, and have long-term impacts, such as chronic pelvic pain and infertility.
The STI syphilis may have no symptoms to start with, but can then cause an ulcer, rash and swollen glands and, many years later if untreated, chronic brain or heart complications. It is also possible for the infection to be passed from mother to baby, so a syphilis test is a part of routine antenatal care.
On the upside, most STIs are easily treated with a simple course of medication.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and broad. Almost every woman will experience these symptoms at various times in their life, and in most cases the symptoms will not be caused by ovarian cancer.
The most commonly reported symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
It is important to know that these symptoms are almost always caused by other, less serious health issues. However, if they persist and are impacting your quality of life, speak to your doctor.
If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor about options for managing your risk and your concerns. Find out more, including additional symptoms via Ovarian Cancer Australia.
The vulva is the general name for the outside parts. It includes the inner and outer lips (labia), the clitoris, the urethral opening (where your urine/wee comes out) and the vaginal opening.
The inside passage that starts at your vulva and ends at the cervix? That’s the vagina.
Scientific studies have revealed that vaginas can vary significantly in their length and general shape. (Remember, the vagina is the internal passage or tube).
One study from 2006 revealed that vaginal lengths can range from 4cm to 9.5cm, while an earlier study recorded lengths of up to 15cm.
In a study from 2003 on vaginal shape, researchers concluded that there were five general shapes: cone, heart, slug, pumpkin seed, and parallel sides. However, more recent research from a larger study found that "the shape of the tube is not symmetrical or similar to any known geometric shape".
Even though it doesn't sound particularly healthy, having an acidic vaginal environment is very important for keeping this body part in good health.
A healthy vagina has high levels of the ‘good’ bacteria known as Lactobacillus, which produce high levels of lactic acid. It is this acidic environment that protects the vagina from infection and helps to minimise the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria and yeast.
This is why it’s important to avoid practices that can affect the natural balance of the vagina, such as douching or using soaps or perfumed products on your vulva or vagina. The vagina (the internal tube) is a self-cleaning organ – so, in terms of cleaning and 'maintenance', it’s best just to let it do its thing.
We tend to think of the clitoris as being quite small, but there is much more to this body part that meets the eye. It’s is a bit like an iceberg; we can only see the very tip of the clitoris and there is much, much more of this body part hidden beneath the surface.
While the external tip is indeed typically quite small, underneath the skin of the vulva, there are two arms of the clitoris that extend outwards. These arms (known as crura) are surprisingly long, measuring between 5-9cm in length.
There are also two internal bulbs that make up the rest of the clitoris, hidden beneath the skin. These bulbs extend downwards from the tip and measure between 3-7cm long. View a diagram to see its shape.
For women who get their periods and are not on hormonal contraception, your vaginal discharge throughout the month can hint at the high and lows of certain hormones.
In the middle of your cycle, when the hormone oestrogen is high, vaginal discharge often increases a lot – and it’s often stretchy (like egg white), or thin and watery.
In weeks 3 and 4 before your period hits, you may notice a smaller amount of discharge, or it may be 'sticky' or 'tacky'. This is because of rising levels of the hormone progesterone.
Many hormonal contraceptives can affect your discharge because of the hormones they contain. For example, it's common for women who take the Pill to have a whitish vaginal discharge quite consistently throughout the month.
Remember though, everyone is different. Read more about hormones and discharge here.
Vaginas, quite simply, and supposed to smell like vaginas. They are not supposed to smell like flowers or coconuts or fresh mountain air!
There are many different healthy vagina smells: from tangy and sour, to coppery, metallic, earthy, sweaty, sweet or even skunky. And the smell can change depending on where you are in your cycle.
An abnormal vaginal smell is a strong offensive smell (occasionally caused by accidentally leaving a tampon in for way too long) or a strong fishy smell – this is often caused by a condition known as bacterial vaginosis (BV) or the sexually transmissible infection (STI) trichomoniasis. Both will need attention from a doctor.
Just like your other body parts and tissues, the vagina and vulva can be affected by changes that come with age and different life stages, from infancy to postmenopause.
Some common changes include thinning of the vulval skin due to the hormonal changes of menopause, or a darkening of the vulval skin during pregnancy because of the increased blood flow to the area.
We hope you've learnt a little bit more about these amazing and important body parts. If you are concerned about the health of your vagina or vulva for any reason, or if something doesn't seem right or normal for you, don't suffer in silence. Speak to your trusted doctor – not Dr Google!
Many women worry that their vulva doesn’t look ‘normal’, but when it comes to vulval appearance there is no such thing as normal.
In the real world, the labia minora (the inner lips) are often lopsided, they can hang outside the labia majora (the outer lips), and come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
The only ‘normal’ you need to worry about is what is normal for you. Get out a handheld mirror and get familiar with how your vulva looks and feels; that way you’ll know sooner when something isn’t right. Or, explore the wonderful world of vulvas in all their variety by looking at photos of real-life vulvas in the Labia Library.
Join us as we sit down for a chat with Jean Hailes Medical Director and gynaecologist Dr Elizabeth Farrell, covering everything you want to know about vulvas and vaginas, but are perhaps too embarrassed to ask. We’ll also bust some big myths and sort the facts from fiction when it comes to taking care of these body parts.
Along with hot flushes and night sweats, vulval and vaginal dryness occurs because of the drop in the hormone oestrogen during menopause.
But did you know that eating linseeds and whole soy foods such as tofu and tempeh may help?
Many people mistakenly believe that eating soy can have harmful effects on their hormonal health, but Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella is here to clear up the confusion.
We delve into which soy foods she recommends, which ones to stay away from and how much you need to eat to reap the rewards.
Tofu is rich in plant-based protein and calcium, and can be helpful in lowering the ‘bad’ type of cholesterol.
Together with colourful pumpkin and crunchy cashews, this is tofu turned tasty for your meat-free Monday meal.
Learn about the conditions that cause pain, how to tell them apart, and when you might need to seek help.
Here we talk about some common issues that crop up at different ages, and how to best take care of your sexual health throughout your life.
This booklet is an introduction to the condition of endometriosis and is ideal for girls and women who have been newly diagnosed.
The newly launched QENDO app has been created to support women with endometriosis. Track, record, journal and share your symptoms and triggers.
It’s important, more than ever, to stay connected with your friends, family and community, so visit our events page to see if there's the perfect event near you..
If you're short on time but don't want to skimp on flavour, these deconstructed tacos are a simple but nutritious Mexican fix.
I'm a 71 year-old woman who has not had sex for 13 years, but I've recently begun an intimate relationship with a man. The sex is terrific, but I suspect I'm suffering from clitoral atrophy as, even though I'm very sensitive and aroused, it is really difficult for my partner or me to find the clitoris. Can you help?
Often called the 'sister' condition of endometriosis, adenomyosis affects the uterus. Learn how to spot the signs and symptoms, as well as how it is diagnosed and treated.
Discover Jean Hailes fact sheets on a wide variety of women's health topics – from heart health and menopause to breast health and health checks. Some are also available in different languages.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on Women's Health Week 2020 - what you liked, what you didn’t, and what you want to see more of next year.