Have you ever considered just how unique, intricate, and nuanced your vagina truly is? It’s fascinating to think about. The vagina has its own ecosystem that can adapt to any number of factors, especially with age. Just like a rain forest has a canopy, understory, and floor, the vagina has multiple layers that work together to maintain moisture, ward off harmful bacteria, and stay healthy in general. And just like you, your vagina is always evolving.
Major lifecycle events change your vagina. Here’s what to know so you can prepare before and after menopause.
Vaginal Changes During Puberty
Remember puberty? It marks the first major change for your vagina. Your vulva — the area outside your vagina that includes that outer labia, clitoris, and the openings of the vagina and urethra — can change a lot. During puberty, the labia becomes enlarged and may change color, something that can throw off any teen. Puberty brings with it pubic hair and daily discharge from the vagina. And then, of course, your first menstrual period marks your official welcome into your child-bearing years.
Vaginal Changes During Childbirth
Not every woman will experience childbirth, but those who do know how much it can dramatically change the look and feel of the vagina. With a vaginal childbirth, the pelvic floor muscles stretch and tear. The extent of vaginal stretching during childbirth depends on a lot of things, including the size of the baby, genetics, and whether you did pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy. Even those who give birth via C-section can experience some vaginal stretching, since a baby puts a lot of pressure on the area.
Immediately after childbirth, most women feel a lot of soreness and dryness in the vagina and perineum, especially if there’s a tear. In the long-run, the vagina may feel wider or looser than before — you did push something larger than a cantaloupe out of your vagina, after all.
For some women, their vaginas never feel the same. For others, it can take anywhere from 12 weeks to a year for things to feel closer to normal. The good news is that the vagina is incredibly resilient and has the elasticity to contract close to its original structure. After childbirth, pelvic floor exercises can help strengthen the muscles around your vagina, helping with incontinence and improving sex.
Vaginal Changes in Perimenopause
After childbirth, the next life event that affects the vagina in a big way is perimenopause. Perimenopause is the 5-to-10-year period before menopause. During this time, estrogen declines, and less estrogen can mean less moisture and can lead to vaginal atrophy. It sounds alarming, but it’s incredibly common and massively underreported among menopausal women. Sex can help ward off vaginal atrophy by increasing blood flow to the vagina and keeping vaginal tissues healthy.
But sex during menopause isn’t always pain free, especially for those already experiencing vaginal dryness. Lubricants aren’t a solution for vaginal dryness either, as they’re intended only for sexual activity and not for long-term relief. To relieve vaginal dryness, it’s important to use a water-based vaginal moisturizer regularly — preferably one with hyaluronic acid.
For some, the changes that begin during perimenopause can lead to other issues. A more challenging sex life (or lack thereof) brought on by vaginal dryness can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s not uncommon to experience a decreased sex drive during perimenopause as a result of these changes, too. Fortunately, vaginal dryness is treatable. It just takes a little extra effort.
Postmenopause Vaginal Changes
Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be anymore changes, your postmenopause life begins. You reach menopause once you haven’t had a menstrual period for a full year. The average age in the United States is 51. Leading up to or after that, your clitoris and labia can shrink, change color, or sag (vaginal atrophy).
After menopause, your health should be a top priority — and that includes your vaginal health. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and can contribute to a healthier sex drive. Regular exercise can elevate your energy, which also benefits your sex drive and vaginal health. And if you needed another excuse to quit smoking, remember that smoking can reduce estrogen levels, resulting in even more vaginal dryness. Finally, staying hydrated has a multitude of benefits, including helping with blood flow, which is crucial for vaginal health.
Have a Healthy Vagina at Every Age
The vagina is a wonder. From your first period to postmenopause, it’s continually changing and evolving with you. Get to know it if you don’t already and see your doctor regularly. To discover how youthful your vagina is (or isn’t) do these tests at home.
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