The Fit Woman’s Guide to Vaginal Health
Learn the causes and symptoms of five vaginal infections, as well as measures to prevent them.
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The vagina — a wonderland and a mystery all at once. But metaphors aside, you probably don’t give your vagina much thought when you’re about to get your workout on. But vaginal care is more than just a few Kegels now and again and a little tidying up with a monthly wax, and all the extra sweat, friction and heat happening down under can funkify your va-jay-jay. Make your downtown less susceptible to infection, viruses and other such nasties with these expert tips for active women worldwide — and keep your nether parts in the pink.
Consistent and prolonged exposure to moisture can make your vaginal flora swerve into yeast infection territory, which is basically an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. “Your vagina is temperamental and very sensitive to anything extra going on down there,” says Sherry A. Ross, Ph.D., and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. (Savio Republic, 2017). Your vagina has its own little ecosystem with both good and bad microorganisms, and when the scale is tipped too much in one direction, your vagina is unhappy.
When you work out, you sweat — even down there — and that extra moisture will irritate your sweat glands and hair follicles, disrupting the pH balance of your vagina. “The vagina is already a warm, damp place — the perfect breeding ground for bacterial buildup,” Ross says. Couple that with sweaty workout clothing that traps moisture and heat next to your body and the effects can be amplified, found a Rutgers University study.
- Go Commando. While you may think that wearing panties sub spandex will help keep things dry, Ross says this is a no-no. “Athletic brands pay attention to the kinds of fibers they use, and these fabrics — especially in the added panty liner in the crotch — will absorb sweat and secretions better than your standard [underpants],” Ross says.
- Wash Up and Change Out. Showering postworkout is the No. 1 way to stay infectionfree, but sometimes driving, walking home or even stopping for brunch is on your immediate agenda. “It’s that excess sweat which, if not washed away immediately after a workout, feeds the yeast in your vagina,” Ross says. Change out of your sweaty gear right after exercising and into clean, dry underwear and clothes to avoid the yeasty beasties.
Yeast Infection Symptoms
- Itching, burning, redness and swelling of both the vagina and vulva
- Thick, odorless, white discharge similar to cottage cheese
- Sometimes accompanied by pain during intercourse and/or urination
When there is too much of a certain kind of bacteria in the vagina, it can disrupt the delicate balance of “good” versus “harmful” flora. “Bacterial vaginosis is not a true bacterial infection but rather a bacterial imbalance that disrupts the pH of your vagina,” Ross says. The vagina is normally acidic with a pH between 3.8 and 4.5 — about the same as a tomato, in case you were curious. “Anything that messes with this pH could lead to vaginal misery such as infection, dryness, itching or burning,” Ross explains.
While experts aren’t in total agreement as to its cause (some claim the condition is because of multiple sexual partners), Ross believes you develop bacterial vaginosis similarly to how you’d get a yeast infection — by wearing sweaty clothing for too long.
- Ibid. Similar to a yeast infection: Shower directly after a workout, and change out of wet, tightfitting pants as soon as possible.
- Spin Cycle. Exercisers who cycle or Spin should wipe down the seat thoroughly before a workout and immediately remove your workout pants/shorts after a class or ride. “With these activities especially, your vagina and vulvar area may be more exposed to [foreign] bacteria, since you’re pressing down against a seat and inviting germs to make their way into your body,” she says.
Vaginal Body Odor
Just like your armpits, your vagina may smell after working out, which may or may not be normal. “If the smell lingers even after you’ve showered, see your doctor,” says Shery A. Ross, since persistent odor could be the sign of an infection. Wondering if the yogi on the next mat over can catch a whiff when you’re in Down Dog? “If it’s an infection, then yes, most likely, but if it’s just a little vaginal BO, you probably have nothing to worry about,” Ross says.
Bacterial Vaginosis Symptoms
- An abnormal amount of thin, grayish-white discharge
- A foul-smelling fishy odor
- In some cases pain with intercourse
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
A UTI happens when bacteria sneak into your bladder through your urethra — the tube that leads from your bladder to the outside world. These bacteria quickly multiply, causing the lining of your urinary tract to swell and in turn causing many uncomfortable, painful symptoms.
Empty your bladder before a workout as well as directly afterward. “People who exercise tend to drink a lot of water, but they are also likely to delay urination in order to keep their workout moving along,” Ross says. But when you hold it, you’re also holding in all those germs.
Sexual activity also can introduce bacteria into your urethra, leading to a UTI. Urinate as soon after intercourse as possible to reduce your likelihood of contraction.
- Pee on the Reg. Take regular bathroom breaks, even if you only have to go a little, and although the bathroom visits might be dreadful, emptying your bladder helps flush out any hunkering bacteria.
- See Your Doc — Like Now. Over-the-counter meds might mask the pain, but they won’t oust the bacteria, which will likely need a course of antibiotics to be evicted. “Waiting too long to start antibiotics could allow the infection to progress from a simple bladder infection to a complex kidney infection,” Ross warns.
- A frequent urge to urinate
- A burning sensation when you do urinate
- Pelvic pain
- An inability to urinate or passing frequent, small amounts of urine
- Urine that appears cloudy or reddish-pink (a sign of blood in the urine)
- Strong-smelling urine
Sports Vagina — aka Sports V
Though not an official medical condition, experts agree that sports V is a real thing. “The outer tissues of the vagina can create a lot of friction over the inner vaginal areas,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Just like your feet can slide around in your shoes without protection from socks, your vagina can be similarly chafed and rubbed raw without cushioning, she adds.
If you don’t have enough layers on when performing high-friction movements such as Spinning, cycling, walking or running, you are at risk for sports V: In one study, 60 percent of cyclists reported some degree of genital discomfort from riding. “The way the vagina is positioned on a bicycle seat [creates] pressure on the delicate, soft tissues of the labia majora and minora,” Ross explains. On a prolonged bike ride, pressure on the tailbone, lower back and groin also restricts blood flow and increases skin irritation, resulting in genital pain and/or vaginal numbness — especially in the area of the clitoris.
- Be Crotch-Conscious. Ross recommends wearing cycling tights or shorts with a chamois — a padded crotch lining — to reduce the risk of sports V. Also, applying a thin layer of emollient such as Vaseline or A&D ointment to your lady parts before exercise serves as a protectant from friction and chaffing.
- Leave a Landing Strip. In other words, don’t over she-scape. “A nice trim of the pubic hair is fine, but don’t shave it completely,” Ross recommends. “The remaining hair serves as a cushion.”
Sports Vagina Symptoms
- Burning, redness and itching
- Skin infections
An Ounce of Prevention
Avoid having to procure a pound of cure with these three tips that can reduce your chances of developing an issue down below.
Skip the Thong
Don’t wear thongs that slide around a lot when you’re exercising. “Bacteria from the anus and colon are introduced to the bladder through the urethra when you wear a thong,” Sherry A. Ross adds. And because the urethra is a lot shorter in women than in men, women tend to get more bladder infections and UTIs. If you must wear panties, make sure they are made from a breathable, natural fiber such as cotton or bamboo that wicks moisture away from your vagina.
Don’t Be a Douche
Your vagina is a perfectly balanced ecosystem and does not need anything such as a douche to help it “smell better.” In fact, douching changes the equilibrium of your vaginal pH, increasing your likelihood of infection, according to Ross. She does, however, recommend feminine wipes for a little postworkout pat-down to clean away excess sweat and moisture and maintain a healthy pH. Alternately, add some coconut oil to a hot bath to moisturize the skin of the vulva and prevent dryness and itching. Bonus: Coconut oil also can resolve ingrown hairs and bumps.
Push Through Your Period
Though it might be the last thing you want to do when Aunt Flow comes calling, working out can actually relieve menstrual symptoms like uterine cramping, vomiting, nausea and back pain. “When you exercise, your body increases blood flow to the uterus and boosts its production of endorphins,” Michele Olson says. Those feel-good hormones can counter any cramping and combat your postworkout cravings. What’s more, the effectiveness of your workouts — period or not — remains the same, according to a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience done on female athletes. Yes, it may be harder to motivate and to work at your usual intensity, but your body is still capable of hard work no matter what the date on the calendar, so don’t let your uterus talk you out of a sweat sesh.
The Skinny on “Sports” Tampons
Though it seems like a marketing gimmick, tampons designed for sports use are actually useful for female athletes because they flare out after absorbing liquid rather than remaining in a tubular shape. Sports variety or not, experts recommend wearing a tampon that errs on the smaller side. “When a tampon gets too engorged in blood, it can start to swell out of the vagina, and the edges can rub you raw and create a great deal of inflammation,” Michele Olson recommends.