7 Facts Women (And Men) Should Know About the Vagina
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Despite the displays of female sexuality on the Internet, and scantily clad pop stars and models, the word vagina seems to remain taboo.
In fact, myths and misinformation seem to surround the vagina. For example, you might read on the web that the hymen — the membrane that partially covers the opening of the vagina and breaks during first intercourse — can grow back if you don’t have sex for a long while. It can't.
Also, there hasn’t been much resolution concerning female ejaculation. The medical community still can’t determine whether it exists, yet evidence — some of it dating to nearly 2,000 years ago — suggests that the phenomenon is real.
To separate fact from fiction and myth from reality, we've rounded seven facts worth knowing about a woman’s nether regions.
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The vagina is just one part of a women’s private parts
Sometimes, a woman's entire genital region is referred to as the vagina. But in fact, the vagina is just a part of the package, so to speak. The outer portion of a woman’s privates is actually called the vulva. That includes the inner and outer labia, the clitoris, clitoral hood and the opening to the urethra and vagina.
The actual vagina is an internal structure, along with the other parts of the female reproductive system including the cervix, uterus, ovaries and Fallopian tubes (which are sometimes called the oviducts).
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Kegel exercises don’t only work for orgasms
Along with helping women who have problems reaching an orgasm, Kegel exercises also strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which can help women who have trouble holding in their urine, stool or gas.
“You can do these exercises just about anywhere,” said Dr. Courtney Leigh Barnes, a gynecologist at the University of Missouri.
To do a kegel exercise, act as though you are going to stop peeing and hold it for a couple of seconds, or you can insert your finger into the vagina and tighten your muscles, Barnes said.
"These exercises can also be used to help with pelvic organ prolapse,” Barnes said.
Pelvic organ prolapse is a condition in which the organs in the pelvis—like the bladder—drops and pushes against the vagina.
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Probiotic supplements could help keep the balance
Probiotics, also known as the "friendly bacteria," have become a popular treatment against the "bad" bacteria that might cause harm to the body. Some evidence suggests they help digestion and combat diarrhea and gut inflammation.
A few studies have also hinted that using probiotics could help against vaginal infections, such as yeast infections, but according to Barnes, “there isn’t enough proof to make a specific recommendation.”
“More research needs to be done to say for sure when, how much, and what type of probiotics are helpful,” she said.
Barnes said she has had patients who suffered from chronic vaginal infections who have felt better after taking probiotics.
"If I have a patient with recurrent vaginal infections, I will recommend probiotics in the form of fermented goat’s milk," she said, but its not right for everyone, including people with lactose intolerance.
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Discharges women should worry about
Although the vagina is considered a self-cleaning organ, and some discharge is normal, that doesn’t mean it’s not vulnerable.
“Any vaginal discharge that seems excessive, painful, irritating or foul in odor should be evaluated by a doctor,” Barnes said.
Some women try to diagnose their own vaginal infections at home, and use over-the-counter medications. "Unfortunately, research has shown that patients aren't very accurate when it comes to self-diagnosis," Barnes said.
She recommends that women get evaluated if there is an abnormal discharge. Although it can sometimes be as simple as a yeast infection, "other times, the infection can be more complicated, or even a sexually transmitted infection," she said.
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Sex can keep the vagina healthy — especially for postmenopausal women
Through the various stages of women's lives — including childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as normal aging and menopause — the body undergoes hormonal changes that could lead to vaginal dryness.
"Estrogen helps keep the vagina healthy and lubricated," Barnes said. "Once estrogen levels drop, the vagina can become dry, and sometimes even be a source of pain."
Experts say that having sex can prevent the vagina from becoming thin and tight.
“Safe vaginal intercourse can help keep the vagina healthy and dilated,” Barnes said.
To help make intercourse more comfortable, she suggested using lubricants. And for women who experience extreme dryness and discomfort, using hormonal therapies in the form of pills, patches, vaginal rings or creams may be an option.
"There are some risks to certain types of hormone therapy,” she cautioned, "so it's important for women to discuss them with their doctor before making a decision to use them."
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Good and bad bacteria
It's normal to have bacteria in your vagina. In fact, there are some bacteria known as lactobacilli that keep the acidity of the vagina in the normal range.
But sometimes the balance between good and bad bacteria can be disrupted. When that happens, women could experience a discharge that smells fishy, or have an itching or burning sensation, Barnes said.
But there are ways that women can keep their vaginas healthy, and keep the good bacteria present, she noted.
"I always tell my patients to avoid douching," she said. "Flushing out the vagina with anything that might kill the lactobacilli can result in an overgrowth of other types of problematic bacteria."
She also recommended using soaps to clean only the hair-covered areas of skin.
"Water is sufficient for cleaning the non-hair-bearing regions," she said.
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The clitoris isn't just a small pink nub
The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings aimed for sexual pleasure — that's double the number in the penis, according to experts.
The clitoris, which is a small pink organ that lies underneath the clitoral hood, is a powerhouse of pleasure. Although it extends into the vagina for about three inches, and connects with the controversial G-spot area,the clitoris is considered an "external" organ. As researchers noted in a 2011 article in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, "the glans and body are visible, while the roots are hidden, therefore they are not "internal.'"
In other words, the most visible part of the clitoris is only a small part of it — it extends from there like roots of a tree. The length of the whole clitoris has been estimated to be nearly four inches long.