Understandably, we’ve all been worrying about our health during the current pandemic, washing our hands more and trying to get fit to boost our body’s natural defences where possible.
But while we were taking care of the rest of our body, we might have missed out on looking after our vaginas.
Covid-19 itself may not have impacted our vaginal health, but many of the changes we’ve made since lockdown might have.
We spoke to gynaecologist Anne Henderson on behalf of intimate health brand Canesten, to find out how our ‘new normal’ might have had consequences for our intimate health – as well as what to do about it.
Particularly at the start of the lockdown, it seemed that all people were doing was working out and running and staying active.
This is great for the mind and body, especially as it was the only reason we were allowed outside to begin with, but you do need to be a little extra vigilant when wearing tight clothes like leggings.
If you don’t wash your workout gear correctly or you use irritating deodorants or soaps down below, it could end up in a case of bacterial vaginosis (BV).
Anne says: ‘Sweating and working out in itself, is not harmful, nor is it likely to cause BV. However, it is the habits that women engage in as a result of this, that may make them more susceptible to BV.
‘If women feel they are sweating more regularly, they may be showering more and using strong soaps and shower gels. Further to this, women may be using stronger detergents when washing their exercising clothing or underwear.
‘Stronger detergents often have alkaline irritants in them, which can transfer to clothing. Therefore, when it comes to wearing knickers and trousers that are of course positioned close to the genitals, this can upset the pH balance in the vaginal area which may contribute to the development of BV.’
Anne recommends using a gentle laundry solution like the Eco Egg (which washes clothes with gentle mineral pellets) to keep your tighter clothes clean without irritation.
What is bacterial vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common condition that can cause unusual discharge.
This discharge may smell ‘fishy’ and can be more prominent after sex, as well as being greyish-white and more watery than usual.
It’s caused by a change in the pH of the vagina and shouldn’t cause you any pain or irritation. It’s also easily treated with antibiotics, but it can cause complications such as susceptibility to chlamydia or gonorrhoea so it’s important to speak to a medical professional if you’re experiencing symptoms.
More frequent sex
The sexual habits of the nation have been something of a mixed bag throughout lockdown, with some people having no sex at all due to social distancing.
However, the average frequency of sex for women went up dramatically during this time, so some folks out there were bringing the numbers up.
More sex is great news, but it can also lead to cystitis or other issues.
Anne explains: ‘Many intimate health conditions can be related to sexual intercourse, whether it’s an indirect or a direct cause. Not a lot of people know that BV and thrush can be passed from partner to partner, or intercourse can be a stimulant for these infections.
‘Sexual intercourse is probably the main trigger for cystitis in women, and it’s very easy to understand anatomically why that would be.
‘Most women will find that it happens around the time of intercourse or 48-72 hours later, and it’s simply a mechanical transfer of the bowel bacteria from the perineum to the bladder. There are precautions you can take to avoid that.’
Just remember to always have a pee after sex, and make sure to empty your bladder as much as you can to prevent cystitis. If it’s persistent even after this, give your GP a call.
What is cystitis?
Cystitis is a common urinary tract infection that causes inflammation of the bladder.
Symptoms include stinging when you pee, more frequent need to pee, dark, cloudy, or strong-smelling urine, lower stomach pain, and feeling achy and tired.
Although cystitis itself isn’t normally serious, if left untreated it can lead to a kidney infection, so it’s important to seek medical advice if things don’t clear up after a few days.
Recent YouGov research has found that around 1 in 5 (21%) have been drinking more since lockdown and with pubs re-opening this may only increase.
To add another thing to the list of fun things that want to harm our vaginas, alcohol’s high sugar content is a cause for concern when it comes to our vaginal health – and can cause thrush.
Anne tells us more about the impact of sugar on the vagina: ‘Try and avoid a high sugar diet – refined carbohydrates and sugar are bad for all aspects of health as they raise sugar levels.
‘This is then carried throughout the body which can raise the sugar levels in the vaginal tissues, not just the bloodstream and that is very unhealthy. Thrush in general, more so than BV, really thrives on high sugar levels in the tissues.’
So if you’re noticing more instances of thrush when you drink more, try to cut back.
What is thrush?
According to the NHS: ‘Thrush is a common yeast infection that affects men and women. It’s usually harmless but it can be uncomfortable and keep coming back. It is not classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).’
Symptoms of thrush differ depending on where on the body you’re experiencing it, but in vaginal thrush you’ll usually experience:
- white vaginal discharge (like cottage cheese) that doesn’t typically smell
- itching and irritation around the vagina
- soreness and stinging during sex or when you pee
DIY beauty treatments
There’s no inherent problem with waxing or shaving, but if you’ve come round to the DIY way of life when it comes to hair removal, try to take precautions to prevent cellulitis.
This infection of the follicles can make skin red and painful, and will require a course of antibiotics to treat, so it’s better to avoid getting it.
‘That can happen with waxing as well, but it’s particularly common with shaving,’ says Anne.
‘With shaving, you’re actually removing some of the skin surface, hence it can bleed when you shave and can allow infection in and also disrupt the hair follicle itself.
‘My advice would be to not shave the genital area, you can easily cut yourself and get an infection. If women want to remove hair then it must be done by somebody who’s professionally trained in waxing.’
If you are intent on shaving, try using an electric trimmer with a guard so you don’t cut yourself.
Or just go for good old hair removal cream (but make sure it’s one suitable for intimate areas) or laser removal if you can.
Hygiene is key – especially in the fight against coronavirus – but when it comes to our vaginas there’s such a thing as ‘too clean’.
Our vaginas have a delicate pH balance, which can be upset with harsh washes and soaps.
Even those ‘designed’ for the area can include fragrances or chemicals that irritate and leave you feeling uncomfortable, with the potential to cause BV and thrush too.
Anne comments: Do as little as possible or in some cases do nothing. Please leave the vagina alone!
‘Over-washing and using harsh cleaning products, and wearing tight clothing can all impact the health of the vagina.
‘My best advice would be to wash the vagina with just water, make sure it’s dry after and try and wear loose underwear.’
If you’re worried that you do have the symptoms of thrush or BV, you can use a product like Canestest to check your pH levels and help you make the decision on whether you head to the GP or pharmacy.
Alternatively, most pharmacies can dispense treatments for these issues over the counter with no need to visit a doctor. Some – like Superdrug – will allow you to order treatments online then go in to collect.
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