Fifteen Facts about Your Vagina

Out of sight; out of mind. That’s how it is with the vagina. As long as it’s working and isn’t causing a fuss (which, granted, becomes more iffy at this stage of the game), we forget about it.

Nothing wrong with that.

But, ladies, your vagina is a marvelous thing, so in the interest of a little community ed on this underappreciated organ, here are some fun and quirky facts—maybe things you didn't know—about your vagina.

  1. The word vagina comes from the Latin word for “sheath” or “scabbard.” Those Latin lovers were all about their swords. The word orgasm originated with the Sanskrit word for “strength.”
  2. The hymen is named after, um, Hymen, the Greek goddess of marriage. It’s a membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening before puberty to protect it until normal changes during puberty. It’s broken with a girl’s first sexual penetration, and the attendant show of blood is the traditional “proof” of her virginity.
  3. As you might imagine, the vagina has accumulated many colorful names over the centuries. A few of the, ahem, more decorous are: camel toe, honeypot, cock pocket, vajayjay, meat wallet, muff, bearded clam, fish taco, crotch mackerel, hot pocket, bikini biscuit, panty hamster, yum yum, twat, hoo ha, and, of course, pussy and cunt. Enough already!
  4. The vagina proper begins at the mouth of the vulva and ends at the cervix, which is that bottlestopper at the base of the uterus. So the vagina is the conduit—the “potential space,” the empty sock without a foot in it—that leads from outside the body to the small opening in the cervix that allows sperm to pass through.
  5. While the vagina is only 3-4 inches long, it balloons to 200 percent its normal size (to accommodate those Latin swords as well as babies of various sizes). This impressive ballooning effect happens because the vagina is pleated like a skirt with a bunch of folds, called rugae, which expand when extra space is needed.
  6. We talked about the normal variations in the way your outer genitalia may look, but for the most part, vaginas all look the same.
  7. Like your oven, your vagina is self-cleaning. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t douche. You’ll upset the delicate balance of good bacteria that live in there. Wash your external genitals with warm water and some gentle, unscented soap.
  8. Your vagina has its own unique odor, which is determined by your diet, the normal variation in bacteria, sweat, and hygiene.
  9. Your pubic hair isn’t just an annoying decoration. In days of yore, it was a “reproductive billboard” announcing that over yonder was a fertile female. It also traps your scent, leading suitors to the honey pot. Times have changed since caveman days, and a healthy mat of hair may not be quite so irresistible today. Pubic hair has a life expectancy of only three weeks versus head hair, which stays put for about seven years.
  10. The normal pH balance in your vagina is slightly acidic, similar to wine or tomatoes. That normal balance can get out of whack if you have an infection, douche, or through exposure to semen, which is more alkaline.
  11. Sex keeps your vagina moist and flexible, especially after estrogen levels drop. “Safe vaginal intercourse can help keep the vagina healthy and dilated,” says Dr. Courtney Leigh Barnes, a gynecologist at the University of Missouri in this article.
  12. Vaginal farts (also called queefs or varts) happen to every female at one time or another, especially during sex or exercise. So don’t be embarrassed.
  13. Gravity is as hard on your vagina as it is on your breasts, face, and buttocks. It sags, and sometimes, it falls out. This is called a prolapse. While it may be uncomfortable, it’s usually painless and can be fixed.
  14. Most women (about 70 percent) don’t orgasm through vaginal stimulation alone, but through a combination of clitoral and G-spot action.
  15. The first two inches in the vagina have the most nerve endings and are the most sensitive.
Don't say we never told you.

Q: Could my partner's medications affect my vaginal discharge?

The odor and discharge that you describe sounds most consistent with bacterial vaginosis; it's not a result of your partner's medications. This infection is not serious or particularly worrisome, but the symptoms are certainly a major annoyance!

You could first try RepHresh, a product that may alleviate the symptoms by correcting the vaginal pH (you can read more about pH in this recent blog post). Vaginosis can also be treated with an antibiotic, administered orally or vaginally.

Douching is not helpful and can be harmful: It disrupts normal bacteria in the vagina and makes you more susceptible to infection.

Vaginal Health Begins with Bugs

When you think about it, the vagina is a pretty undemanding organ. It’s cooperated through childbirth and nights of passion; it’s soldiered on uncomplainingly throughout years of menses and the occasional “oops”—such as the patient of mine who applied Retin-A skin cream instead of Vagisil, or the friend who used Ben-Gay. Her vagina did a little complaining then, but soon returned to its cheerful self.

Because the vagina has rarely been the squeaky wheel, we’ve tended to tend to take it for granted. As we age, however, vaginal tissue thins, loses elasticity, and becomes dry, so, like other parts of our bodies, that wheel tends to squeak a little louder.

Often, vaginal troubles can be addressed—or avoided altogether—with some TLC. While few of us think about how to maintain optimal vaginal health, maybe it’s time to give that longsuffering organ some extra attention. The two major factors in maintaining a healthy, uncomplaining vagina are a good bacterial balance and moisture.

First, a science lesson: pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline (basic) a substance is. The pH scale ranges from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline) with seven being neutral. A healthy vagina is slightly acidic, in the range of 4.5 to 5. This acidity is maintained by a delicate balance of organisms, notably the bacteria lactobacillus that produces lactic acid. This slightly acid environment helps to ward off infection.

When the pH level in our vagina is out of whack, unwanted bacteria and other organisms can flourish—Candida albicans, for example, which is the fungus causing yeast infections. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to upset the balance. A surgary diet, some kinds of soap, a round of antibiotics, or even one of those nights of passion can upset the flora in the vagina. Sperm, for example, is alkaline with a pH of 7 to 8, and so is blood with a pH of 7.4, which is why hygiene is especially important if you’re still menstruating.

Here are some suggestions for maintaining a good pH balance and for overall vaginal hygiene.

  • Don’t douche. Douching actually increases the risk of bacterial infection and reduces the “good” lactobacilli in the vagina. The vaginal walls produce a clear fluid to flush out foreign substances (more on this in the next post), so douching is both unnecessary and harmful.
  • Maintain good air flow. Wear cotton panties and loose clothing—at least some of the time! Avoid relying on silks and synthetics that trap moisture on the vulva. Don’t wear thongs. Change out of wet bathing suits or clothing promptly.
  • Avoid scented products: feminine sprays, soaps, bubble bath, scented pads or tampons. They can be irritating, allergenic, or alkaline.
  • Wash your bottom with warm water. Soap is drying to the delicate vulva and inner labia, and some soaps are alkaline.
  • Use tampons rather than pads and change them regularly.
  • Keep bacteria where they belong. Wipe from front to rear.
  • Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates. They can create an environment that feeds fungi.
  • Talk to your doctor about maintaining good vaginal health if you’re prescribed antibiotics. He or she may suggest eating yogurt, for example, or taking Lactobacillus acidophilus tablets.
  • Wash underwear with mild soap, such as Woolite. Rinse well. Avoid scented fabric softeners.
At the end of the day, all our parts are interconnected, so it’s not possible to maintain good vaginal health if the rest of your body is unhealthy. Smoking, obesity, and diabetes are all conditions that compromise health, including vaginal health. Good general habits, such as a healthy diet and exercise to maintain good muscle tone, are probably the most critical elements to a healthy vagina. But you knew that.