Vaginal health can vary from one person to another, and understanding normal vaginal health is essential for full body wellness.
No matter a person’s age, vaginal health can fluctuate. It’s common for the vagina to change throughout a monthly menstrual cycle which is why tracking this cycle is important. However, other changes can be a warning sign of vaginal health that should be discussed with a gynecologist. Understanding normal vaginal changes can help to detect abnormalities that signal more serious health complications .
Unfortunately, adolescents learn very little about the natural state of the vagina other than its reproductive purposes and primarily, how to avoid pregnancy. The truth is that the physical characteristics and the impacts of vaginal hygiene products are just as important in health education .
- Vaginal Discharge
This is a topic that is rarely covered in sexual education outside of the negative aspects of vaginal health such infections and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Few women realize that vaginal discharge can vary in quantity and color, and both factors are likely to change, throughout the menstrual cycle from a clear and minimal discharge to a white and thick discharge.
- Vaginal Smells
This is a characteristic that is often the topic of most vaginal health conversations because vaginal odor can be a source of embarrassment. Despite what feminine hygiene companies advertise, vaginal odor is normal. This smell can vary in intensity based on many factors such as the menstrual cycle, activity level, and diet .
- The labia minora and majora
The most important factor of vaginal health is the appearance of the labia. Women often face scrutiny for the size, shape, and color of the labia because of unrealistic depictions in education materials and the pornography industry. The truth is that every labia is unique. Unfortunately, an increasing number of women are willing to undergo painful procedures and possibly alter their bodies to fit a certain form .
Understanding vaginal health is essential because these patterns in vaginal health can make abnormal changes more obvious. These changes should never be ignored and can be warning signs of more serious conditions:
- Changes in discharge
While gradual changes are normal in each phase of the menstrual cycle, abrupt changes in discharge appearance, texture, thickness, or even color, especially when these changes accompany pain or irritation, can mean that something is wrong with the internal balance of the vaginal flora. Typically, these changes can be a sign of yeast infection, but sometimes, these can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
- Intense odors
These changes in discharge can also accompany changes in odor. While changes in odor are common after exercise, sex, and at different stages of the menstrual cycle, strong smells can indicate a bacterial overgrowth or yeast infection  . Inspecting vaginal discharge when a change occurs can help determine if the change is cause for concern. By tracking the menstrual cycle and being aware of any changes in activity or hygiene, such as a new soap or laundry detergent, it can be easier to determine what factors may be contributing to these changes.
- Changes in appearance
Vaginal appearance should remain consistent throughout each month, and while changes in elasticity and pigment can occur as women age, dramatic monthly changes in appearance and uneven pigmentation are not typical. Every woman should take the time to learn the appearance of their vagina, especially, the color, shape, and texture of the labia and the outer folds of the vagina. Any changes such as redness, darkened lesions, or lumps and bumps should never be ignored.
While it’s important to seek the advice of a medical professional, consider what other factors might cause these changes such as rough intercourse which can cause irritation, tight fitting clothes, or even medication changes. These factors might help with diagnosis, but diagnostic testing such as blood panels, PAP smears, and cultures can help with early detection of cancer or more serious infections.
- Preventing vaginal health complications
Vaginal hygiene products and daily hygiene routines are often the source of vaginal complications. No matter what the label says, unless the product is approved by the FDA to balance vaginal Ph and improve vaginal health, the detergents in these products can irritate the labia and vulva. Another important consideration is that vaginal hygiene products should never enter the vagina. 
Douches and other internal cleansers can alter vaginal Ph, making the vagina more susceptible to infection and bacterial overgrowth. Washing should only occur on the outer folds of the vagina with warm water splashed against the skin. Scrubbing the delicate skin of the labia and vulva can result in irritation and abrasions that can make the vagina more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STI).
Understanding what’s normal about vaginal health is unique to every woman. The physical appearance of vaginas is equally unique, so learning the physical appearance can be essential to early detection of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
- Mayo Clinic Staff, “Vagina: What’s normal, what’s not,” Healthy Lifestyle: Women’s Health. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/womens-health/in-depth/vagina/art-20046562
- “Vulvovaginal Health,” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). January 2020. https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/vulvovaginal-health
- Cleveland Clinic Medical Professionals, “Vaginal Odor,” 09 December 2020.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17905-vaginal-odor
- Bashforth, E. “What do normal labia look like?” Patient Info. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited, 15 October 2021. https://patient.info/news-and-features/what-does-a-normal-labia-look-like
- “What is a Yeast Infection?” Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., 2021. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/vaginitis/what-yeast-infection
- Elas, ARNP, MSN, FNP-BC, Diane, Kennedy-Stockdale, MD, MS, Colleen and Shaffer, DO, Sarah, “Vulvar skin care guidelines.” University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, December 2021. https://uihc.org/health-topics/vulvar-skin-care-guidelines