Listen up ladies: From irregular periods to labia bumps to an itchy vulva, your lady parts can clue you in to some potentially serious issues going on in your body.
This article originally appeared on health.com.
Healthy vaginas all have key things in common. No part, from your cervix to your vulva, should itch, hurt, or burn. And while scent and discharge can vary a lot from woman to woman, whatever vaginal odor or amount of discharge that is normal for you depending on where you are in your cycle shouldn’t suddenly change in a major way.
But if you do develop a crazy-persistent labia itch, for example, or your lady bits start to smell funky, it’s time to investigate. These and other signs are your vagina’s way of saying that something is off. It’s always wise to see your ob-gyn for an official diagnosis. In the meantime, use our symptom decoder to find out what your vagina is trying to tell you.
If your vagina itches…
An occasional crotch itch is one thing—you’ve sweat a lot at the gym, or you ended up with razor burn after shaving.
But a chronically itchy vagina or vulva is a sign that something is not right. While the urge to scratch may simply be triggered by an allergic reaction to soap or body wash, it can also be a tip-off to conditions like bacterial vaginosis (which happens when the normal bacteria in the vagina get out of balance), a yeast infection, or the sexually transmitted infection trichomoniasis.
To find out which of these infections could be behind your itch and then get the right meds to treat it, you’ll need some simple tests. That means seeing your doctor, says Michael Cackovic, MD, ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Although most women self-treat with over-the-counter medication, I believe they should see their doctor to find out exactly what is causing their symptoms,” he says. Treating yourself for the wrong issue can make symptoms worse.
If your vagina smells funky…
Depending on the time of the month, your choice of clothes, and how hard you sweat, your vaginal odor can be anywhere from mild to pungent. But it should never smell foul or bad, so any change along these lines is worth paying attention to. An unpleasant scent “could be due to something as simple as changing your hygiene regimen or diet,” says Dr. Cackovic. “Or it may be something more complicated, like an infection.”
Infections like bacterial vaginosis and STDs like trichomoniasis—yep, these two again—are often the culprits behind odor issues. But don’t discount something as simple as forgetting to take out a tampon, which causes bacteria to build up and produce a funky stench.
If your period is irregular…
Weight loss. Excessive exercise. Crazy stress. Countless things can throw off your cycle and make your periods longer, shorter, or completely MIA. If you can legitimately rule these factors out, however, consider the possibility of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a not-well-understood condition linked to a hormone imbalance.
“Women with PCOS do not ovulate regularly,” says Daniel Breitkopf, MD, chair of the division gynecology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Without regular ovulation, you won’t have a regular period—your flow could come every few months or be absent for several, then show up only to go into hiding again.
Other hallmark signs of PCOS include acne and abnormal hair growth on the face, back, or chest. And with your hormones out of whack, it can be harder to become pregnant, so fertility issues are a sign as well. “If symptoms are persisting for more than six to 12 months, then a woman should see her doctor to investigate the cause,” recommends Dr. Breitkopf.
If your vaginal discharge changes…
We wish we could tell you exactly how much daily discharge is normal and what it should look like. But the fact is, the amount, consistency, and color of discharge varies widely among women. From off-white and thick to clear, watery, and slippery, it’s also supposed to change depending on where you are in your cycle.
But a marked change in the color or amount or odor, needs to be addressed. The change could be related to hormonal shifts, pregnancy, your hydration level, or an infection, says Dr. Cackovic. Anything added to the discharge like blood, which breaks down to a greenish color, needs to be looked at, he adds. A color change can also be a sign of STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. “If it persists beyond a day or two, I think a visit to your doctor is in order.”
If your labia are lumpy or bumpy…
Finding a lump or bump below the belt can be pretty scary. But in most cases, it’s totally benign. A small lump under the skin of the vulva or vagina can simply be a blocked gland caused by a buildup of fluid. These blockages, or cysts, usually dissolve and go away on their own. If a cyst is accompanied by pain or continues to grow, check in with your doctor, who can drain it if necessary.
Pimple-like bumps or a bumpy red rash on or near your labia may indicate clogged or infected hair follicles, a common side effect of shaving, waxing, or wearing sweaty workout leggings for hours on end. They could also be signs of an allergic reaction, perhaps to a new laundry detergent or body wash. Wait a few weeks to see if the bumps clear on their own, and if not, your doctor should take a look.
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