Seventy-five percent of people with vaginas experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime, while nearly 30% of people will experience bacterial vaginosis. Yeast infections and bacterial infections are extremely common, and in fact, you’ve probably experienced one before. Although they are so common, they are not commonly talked about due to stigma or discomfort, so you might not even know the difference between the two. Luckily, I have no discomfort in talking about anything related to sexual health or vaginas, so I can tell you all about these two infections experienced by nearly everyone with a vagina!

Yeast and bacterial infections are both types of vaginitis. Vaginitis is when the vulva (the outer folds of the vagina), and/or vagina (the actual canal inside the body), are inflamed and irritated. This is caused by a number of different things such as wearing a wet swimsuit for too long, using scented laundry detergent, or having sex. 

What are yeast infections?

A yeast infection, also known as vulvovaginal candidiasis, occurs when the natural yeast in your vagina grows out of control. Vaginas have yeast in them, and this yeast usually exists without any problems. Your vaginal yeast can grow out of control if the natural balance of your vagina gets thrown off. This can happen due to changes in hormones during a menstrual cycle or pregnancy, from taking antibiotics, a weak immune system, or through a “natural reaction to another person’s genital chemistry.” Yeast infections aren’t contagious, and they aren’t STDs, however, you could disrupt your body’s natural yeast by coming in contact with someone whose genital yeast you don’t jive with. For example, you could get a yeast infection after having sex with a new partner because their genital yeast irritates you. Crazy, right? Additionally, if you notice certain products like bath bombs or laundry detergent irritate your vulva, get rid of them, as these can cause the infection as well.

What are the symptoms of yeast infections?

The most common symptoms of yeast infections are redness, itchiness, and discomfort of the vulva and vagina. You might experience some thick, white, “cottage cheese” like discharge, although not everyone with a yeast infection has a change in discharge. Although the discharge might look different, a change in the smell of discharge with a yeast infection isn’t noticeable. You might also notice a white coating in the folds of your vulva or vagina. If you have a lot of irritation or if you scratch at your itchy crotch, it might also sting a little bit when you pee. Although these symptoms might seem alarming, yeast infections are easily treatable.

Yeast infections are treated with anti-fungal medicine in the form of a cream or pill. You can get over-the-counter yeast infection medicine like Monistat, or your doctor can prescribe you some. Usually, this cream can be put on the vulva and is inserted into the vagina as well. Although yeast infections aren’t STDs or contagious, you should wait to have sex or put anything in your vagina until you are done with your treatment to avoid further irritation. 

What is bacterial vaginosis?

Now, onto bacterial vaginosis! Similar to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis or BV, is caused by an imbalance in your vagina. BV is caused when the healthy bacteria in your vagina get out of balance and grow too much. Anything that throws off the natural pH of your vagina can incite this imbalance and lead to BV. A lot of things can throw off your vaginal pH, including scented pads or tampons, scented toilet paper, having new or multiple sexual partners, or douching. Truthfully, a lot of the things that can cause a yeast infection can also cause BV.

How is it different from a yeast infection?

Eighty-four percent of people with BV don’t experience symptoms or their symptoms are so mild they don’t even notice. If you do experience symptoms, however, they include irritation similar to the yeast infection, and a fishy-smelling discharge that can be thin, milky white, or grayish in color. The fishy smell is often strongest after sex or while you pee. As with a yeast infection, BV isn’t an STD and is easily treatable, although having BV can increase your risk of getting an STD.

BV is treated with antibiotics. Similar to yeast infection treatment, these antibiotics are either in gel or cream form that you put in the vagina or in a pill form. Again, wait to have sex or put things in your vagina until you finish your antibiotics and your symptoms clear up. If you have frequent bouts of BV, taking probiotics can help balance out your body’s natural bacteria.

Although uncomfortable and annoying, both of these forms of vaginitis are fairly common, and you’ll probably experience one or both at least once in your life (if you have a vagina of course). Because these infections are so common, there’s no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed if you experience either. The yeast and bacteria in your vagina can be thrown off by many little things, so it is important to pay attention to your body, your vulva, and your vagina. It’s easy to discount a little itchiness or discomfort as “normal,” but it could be your body telling you that you have a yeast or bacterial infection. Pay attention to your symptoms and see a doctor if you think you have an infection. After a few days of taking medicine, you should feel better!

I remember hearing about “That First Trip” to the gynecologist when I was younger. I wasn’t exactly sure what happened at the gynecologist, I just knew you had to take your pants off in front of some doctor, and this doctor had to stick things inside you to make sure you were healthy. I thought going to the gynecologist was guaranteed to be painful and uncomfortable, and my first trip to the gynecologist was something I was afraid of. When the time for my first visit came I was really nervous, but I was pleased to find all the mystique and scary rumors surrounding my visit were nothing like my actual positive experience.

What is a gynecologist?

A gynecologist is “a physician who specializes in treating diseases of the female reproductive organs and providing well-woman health care that focuses primarily on the reproductive organs.” Gynecologists provide patients with birth control, information about sexual health, menstruation, fertility, as well as treat conditions or vaginal health concerns, and provide Pap smears.

If someone hasn’t already made a visit to the gynecologist well into puberty, it is recommended that you start going for Pap smears either once you become sexually active or once you turn 21. A Pap smear is a test that gynecologists do to test for cervical cancer and overall cervical health. 

What to expect at the gynecologist

After checking in, you’ll be led into an examination room and the nurse will ask you if you have any questions for the doctor. This is a good time to voice any questions or concerns about your sexual health. Asking about contraception, STD tests, pain during sex, or any other sexual health concerns are all things you should feel comfortable asking your gynecologist. For example, I’ve asked my gynecologist how and why some antibiotics make birth control pills less effective.

People often feel uncomfortable talking about sex, but giving you information on your sexual health is what the gynecologist is there for. Even if it seems scary, it is totally normal and important to voice any questions or concerns you have while you are at the office and the doctor can take a look at anything they need to. You won’t be judged – it is literally the gynecologist’s job to help you! 

Asking lots of questions

You can also ask your gynecologist general questions about sexual health and birth control, even if they don’t apply to you. You can inquire about birth control methods you don’t use but have read about, or you could ask about managing emotional health along with sexual health in a relationship. I know that at Planned Parenthood, for example, they always ask questions about your emotional well-being within your sexual relationships, and I just love that.  

Next, you’ll be asked to take your clothes off and wear a robe of some sort and wait until the doctor comes in. You’ll be left alone for a while, then the doctor will arrive. The doctor will likely ask if you have any questions or concerns you want to address, then they’ll start the exam. You’ll scoot your booty to the bottom of the examination table and place your feet in stirrups so your legs are spread nice and wide. The doctor will then place a speculum or a metal instrument into your vagina to hold the vaginal walls open so they can see your cervix. The gynecologist should have various sizes of speculums and will likely use the smallest one when it is your first visit. The doctor will then look at your cervix and take a small little brush to take a sample of your cells. The doctor may also put a finger or two into your vagina and feel around to make sure you have no unnecessary pain or pressure.

It’s not as scary as it seems

I know this all sounds really intense and vulnerable, but it truly is not as scary as it sounds. The most important thing is to try and keep your body relaxed. If you tense up your muscles while the doctor is doing their business, it might be more painful than if you stay relaxed. The actual Pap smear takes less than a minute, so you will only be uncomfortable for a short amount of time.

You can also ask your doctor to explain what they are doing for the exam before they do it. During my first visit, my gynecologist showed me the speculum before inserting it, told me he was using the smallest one and described how he was going to insert it before he did. This helped me feel prepared, relaxed, and overall more comfortable. This visit is about you and your health, so you should feel empowered to ask for what you need to be most comfortable.

How often to go to the gynecologist

While you’re at the visit, the gynecologist will likely also feel your breast tissue to make sure there are no abnormal lumps or anything like that. After that, you’ll have a final chance to ask any questions, then you’ll get dressed, schedule your next appointment, and be on your way.

Talk with your doctor about how often they think you need to get a Pap test, but for most people between the ages of 21 and 29, a test every three years is appropriate. For patients aged 30 to 64 a Pap test with an HPV test every 5 years is appropriate, and patients over 65 might not need Pap tests anymore. It is best to ask your doctor what they think is best for you and your body.

Although visiting the gynecologist isn’t always the most comfortable experience, I always feel good leaving my appointment knowing I’m in control of my sexual health. Knowing that my body is healthy and working correctly makes me feel good. 

If you’re anticipating your first visit to the gynecologist, take a deep breath, relax, and know that people get Pap smears done all the time. It’s important for your health, and after the first visit, you definitely won’t be as nervous.

The vagina is an absolutely amazing organ. It can bring life into this world, it helps facilitate your menstrual cycle to let you know your body is working properly, it can be used for sex and pleasure, and it’s totally self-cleaning. And since it’s a self-cleaning organ, that means vaginal hygiene products are totally unnecessary.

Why do vaginal hygiene products exist?

If your vagina is self-cleaning, then why do “feminine hygiene products” like Summer’s Eve and other brands exist? To be perfectly blunt, these products exist to make you think your vagina’s natural discharge and odor is dirty and unnatural so you’ll want to buy feminine hygiene wipes and douches to “cleanse” yourself. Not only do vaginal hygiene products use people’s insecurities and shame regarding their vaginal odor to make money, but these products also are harmful to your vagina’s health and can throw off your vagina’s pH balance, leading to infections or other complications.

The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, using discharge to flush out any bad bacteria. Discharge is one hundred percent normal and essential for your vaginal health. A specific odor likely accompanies this discharge, and for some reason, people are made to feel ashamed of the way their vagina smells. Vaginal odor is also completely normal and healthy. In fact, a person’s vaginal odor will likely change throughout their menstrual cycle, and can also change depending on diet. The only time you should be concerned about your discharge or vaginal odor is if either one changes drastically. If your discharge changes color or consistency and your vaginal odor change significantly, consult your doctor. You could have an infection.

Cleaning your vulva versus vagina

Although the vagina cleans itself, the vulva does not. Your vulva is the folds of skin (labia) on the outside of your body. The best way to clean your vulva is with warm water. Doctors also recommend warm water and mild soap. If you have very sensitive skin, unscented soap would work best, but again, just water is fine as well. Since all you need for a clean vulva and vagina is warm water, the chemicals in vaginal hygiene products can be harmful to users.

Summer’s Eve has a whole host of products such as cleansing wipes, sprays, cleansing wash, body powder, and douche products. It’s important to note that Summer’s Eve is not the only brand that sells these types of products. I am just using them as an example because they are very widely known and easily available. No matter the brand name, these products are unnecessary and can be harmful. 

Most importantly, do not douche

If you gather only one thing from this article, let it be this: do NOT douche. Douching is a method to wash out the vagina using a formula that is sprayed directly into the vagina. Douching products can contain water, vinegar, antiseptics, and fragrances, all of which can be harmful to your vaginal hygiene. People douche to wash out bad bacteria from the vagina and to feel “fresh and clean.” While you are washing out the bad bacteria, you also wash out the good bacteria your vagina needs to maintain a healthy pH balance. Side effects of douching include bacterial vaginosis, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, pregnancy complications such as ectopic pregnancy, and an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Summer’s Eve website contains no ingredients for any of their products, which I find alarming. Through my research, I found one source that listed some ingredients, some of which include “fragrance” (which the product does not elaborate on what makes up this ingredient), methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, cocamidopropyl betaine, and many more. For a full list of ingredients you could of course look at the products in the store. However, if I am using something to clean my vulva or vagina, I would like to be able to pronounce it.

I also found that Summer’s Eve cleansing wipes contain octoxynol-9, which is a spermicide. There is no warning on the packaging that discloses this information. The wipes are not viable forms of contraception, however, it is unclear if the octoxynol-9 is strong enough in the wipes to affect someone’s ability to get pregnant. 

Your vagina’s smell is normal!

This is no joke! Your vagina doesn’t need to be flushed out with water and other chemicals. Your vagina is not smelly or dirty. This harmful narrative that vaginas are dirty and smell bad is incredibly harmful to your physical and mental health. Being told that your vagina is dirty and literally needs to be flushed out with fragrances in order to be clean and desirable harms positive self-image and feeling good in one’s body. I understand wanting to feel clean or wanting to “freshen up” before a sexual encounter, but as mentioned above, all you need is water for that. No chemicals or artificial scents are necessary.

I’m here to tell you that the messages sold to us by these hygiene companies are lies. There is science to prove how harmful these products are and to reiterate that vaginal odor is normal and healthy! Your vagina is not supposed to smell like flowers or baby powder. You are not a flower or a baby. Your vagina should smell like vagina!