The majority of women seem to be aware of the usual things that are dangerous to their female parts – like multiple sexual partners, sticking random items “up there,” and not getting regular pap smears. But, as a gynecologist, I see a spectrum of other conditions and habits that many women have no clue are having a negative effect on their vaginal health.
Smoking. Of course, there are many reasons to cut cigarettes out of your life, but one you might not realize is that women who smoke are at an increased risk of getting cervical cancer. In women who have precancerous changes to their cervix, smokers will progress to cancer up to 75% of the time, whereas nonsmokers only 25%. Studies have found concentrated levels of cigarette carcinogens in women’s cervical mucus. We all know smoking is bad for your heart and lungs, but it is also extremely bad for your cervix. But where you won’t often see the results of smoking to your heart and lungs until late in life, it can kill you with cervical cancer in your 20s and 30s.
Diabetes. Diabetes can affect all parts of the body, but often women don’t realize it can also affect their vagina. In fact, multiple yeast infections can be the first symptom of diabetes in women. High levels of sugar in the blood create a feeding ground for yeast, especially in the vaginal tissue. Women with poorly controlled diabetes often have a very difficult time with persistent yeast infections.
Obesity. The bigger your belly, the more weight presses down on the muscles of the pelvis, bladder and vagina. All this extra pressure can add to symptoms of pelvic prolapse, like leaking of urine when you cough or sneeze. If women can lose weight and strengthen their pelvic muscles, they can usually improve their prolapse symptoms, sometimes enough even to avoid surgery. Obesity can also make it harder for you to get pregnant and it increases your risk of multiple pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and C-section. If your BMI is over 40, then your risk of pregnancy complication is actually higher than a smoker’s. Obesity also increases your risk for endometrial (uterus) cancer.
Overenthusiastic cleanliness. Let’s be clear: hygiene is important, but you can have too much of a good thing. The labia (vaginal lips) and vaginal opening should be washed with a mild soap when bathing, but the internal portion of the vagina doesn’t need any type of “special cleaning.” That means NO douching, essential oils, herbal suppositories, steaming, apple cider vinegar, yogurt or scented tampons. All these disrupt the vaginal ecosystem of normal bacteria and are a setup for infection. Your vagina is not meant to smell like roses.
Constipation. Your vagina and your rectum are very close neighbors. They actually share a wall, so technically they are like a duplex. Chronic constipation and straining can weaken the wall between the vagina and rectum, creating a vaginal hernia called a rectocele. Rectoceles can cause pelvic pressure, painful intercourse and make bowel movements more difficult to pass. If you struggle with constipation, increase your water, veggies and fiber. If it’s still an issue, talk with your provider about medical treatments.
Exercise. Exercise is awesome for your heart, muscles, and mood; but sitting around in sweaty workout clothes is no good for your vagina. Sweaty discharge combined with constricting fabric is a set up for vaginal yeast and bacterial infections. Same goes for lounging around in wet swimsuits by the pool all day. Don’t use this as an excuse not to exercise, just change into dry clothes as soon as possible even if you don’t have a chance to shower right away.
With the new year underway, it’s always a great time for reevaluating healthy habits. If you haven’t had a pelvic exam in the last year then call your provider to get one scheduled. If stopping cigarettes and losing weight are on your resolutions list, then now you know that they aren’t only good for your heart, but good for your female health as well. And don’t you dare stop exercising, but when you do work out, just make sure you clean up (but not too aggressively!) and change clothes right away.