Ahh, vaginas. They’re a source of pleasure, pain and half of the world has them yet they remain an often taboo and private part of our bodies not to be discussed. However, the conversation around vaginas – and vaginal infections, in particular – needs to become the status quo, particularly when there is so much misguided and, at times, harmful information floating around the Internet.
Bacterial Vaginosis is a vaginal infection more common than thrush and far more common than STIs, but according to women’s health expert Dr. Ginni Mansberg, women are uncomfortable talking about it because of its most common symptom: a fishy odour.
“A lot of women either think that smell is normal, or they’re so humiliated and embarrassed by it that they don’t really talk about it, not even to each other,” she said. “I don’t know too many besties who will go ‘does your vajayjay just stink?’”
“Apart from the fact that it’s going to smell and that will really take the edge of your sex life,” Dr. Ginni said Bacterial Vaginosis has been associated with an increased risk of premature labour, pre-term birth, and contracting an STI.
When it comes to the fishy smell, Dr. Ginni says “a lot of girls don’t realise and they’re walking around with a problem in their vagina. If your vagina always smells like fish, and the more you wash, the stinkier it gets – that’s a red flag to me.”
Dr. Ginni says a healthy vagina contains lots of lactobacillus, a ‘friendly’ bacteria that fights off ‘unfriendly’ organisms. She likens this “protective acid mantle” to a helmet that keeps bugs at bay. “Your vagina is very happy being extremely acidic – we’re talking as acidic as a citrus fruit,” she said.
While a quick visit to the doctor is recommended, an increasing amount of women are consulting wellness websites, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, that flog ‘alternative’ treatment methods like yoni eggs or vaginal steaming – a practice Dr. Ginni labels as complete BS.
“I don’t know what vaginal steaming is meant to be doing,” she said. “All I can tell you is, what we know from medical journals is that it’s linked to an increased risk of second-degree burns in the vagina, which is not an easy place to treat.”
“Your vagina left to it’s own devices without added chemicals or added shit put in there will do a really good job of cleaning itself,” she said. “Think of it as a really effective self-cleaning oven – the natural bacteria in there does an awesome job of keeping your vagina sparkly clean.
“Not sparkly clean like a kitchen bench top – that’s very unhealthy. Sparkling clean the way a vagina should be.”
According to Dr. Ginni, another common cause of Bacterial Vaginosis is douching, which involves thoroughly rinsing and washing your vagina. “Because you can buy douching equipment from chemists, people think it must be okay because why else would a chemist be selling it?”
Unfortunately, douching your vagina is very harmful and as well as an increased risk of vaginal infection, Dr. Ginni says it can lead to more serious infections and long-term side effects, “all the way up into the uterus and tubes.”
“There are women who really struggle with the concept that what makes a toilet clean is not the same as what makes a vagina clean,” she says. “They are trying to look for zero vaginal discharge,” when in actual fact, discharge is incredibly important. “It’s awesome stuff, it’s your bodies self-cleaning fluid,” Dr. Ginni says.
So, why do we love to listen to celebs over healthcare professionals? Dr. Ginni says we as a society aren’t just taking advice about our vaginas, “It’s what you feed your baby, it’s whether or not your vaccinate, it’s what you do to lower your cholesterol.”
Dr. Ginni suggests it’s because of the changing advice of doctors. “I always hear, ‘one minute eggs are bad for you, the next they’re good for you. One minute avocados are bad for you, the next they’re good for you. You doctors just can’t make up your minds.’”
“Good science is continuing to attempt to bring down sacred cows by testing, re-testing and testing again,” she says. “Good quality trials that come out and then challenge strongly held totems of beliefs are really good.”
Being flexible in your thinking, or exercising what Dr. Ginni refers to as “cognitive agility,” is crucial in the world we live in today. She says that by taking rigidly held beliefs and sticking to them like a koala, “you’re not a scientist, that’s a religion – I don’t have any firmly held beliefs on anything.”
Then there’s Dr. Google and our obsession with Googling our symptoms. “I don’t think we should say Dr. Google is a bad thing,” Dr. Ginni says. “But it’s a new tool and we need to hone our bullshit detectors.”
Conversations like this might feel awkward and uncomfortable but Dr. Ginni says “if you don’t get any help, the consequences can be as mild as being a bit smelly and embarrassed to as horrific as late pregnancy loss and a higher risk of STIs.”
“If just one girl who reads this feels empowered to get that symptom treated, then that’s a really powerful thing,” she says. So there you have it, treat your vagina like the beautiful self-cleaning oven that it is, and keep your bullshit detector on high alert at all times. We owe it to ourselves.