With sex and its subsequent concepts out of the way, there is still a topic of importance to be addressed when it comes to puberty: hygiene. In people who menstruate, periods are a messy and unpredictable time, but a compromise should never be made in maintaining cleanliness. Since— and especially because — ill-hygiene can lead to ill-health, it is necessary to discuss vaginal hygiene.
Vaginitis is a broad term used to describe the numerous illnesses that can cause infection or inflammation of the vagina. Common symptoms include a change in vaginal discharge, itching in and around the vagina, and burning sensations during urination. It is crucial that these discussions are not made taboo, so that your children may confide in you if they may face such symptoms. Some symptoms may overlap with those of other illnesses or could present as a combination of one disorder and another. It is best not to try and diagnose these illnesses by yourself and consult a medical professional if they arise.
Vaginal discharge is a normal and observed occurrence. Each individual’s discharge differs, and it can change consistency and colour depending on the day of the menstrual cycle. Discharge changes around ovulation and before the period starts — during ovulation it may present as stickier than usual, and during the end of the cycle as creamier than usual. These changes are absolutely normal, as is the absence of vaginal discharge. Sometimes, discharge may change or differ due to tight clothes or a particular food eaten. Though it may seem trivial to discuss, it is a new and scary concept for your child. For their own comfort, even these small things should be discussed. After all, vaginal discharge begins before periods do.
There are a few types of vaginal discharge that can indicate different disorders. One that is fairly common is an odourless, thick, white discharge, described to have the consistency of “cottage cheese,” which is an indication of a yeast infection. There is a naturally present fungus in the vagina which may have been upset due to an imbalance in the environment of the vagina, causing overgrowth and subsequent infection. This is accompanied by possible burning and itching sensations. Yeast infections can occur for many reasons, such as a disturbance in pH levels (possibly a result of trying new soaps or body products) or a hormonal imbalance. Yeast infections are treatable with medicine.
Another common abnormal discharge is one that is foul-smelling (referred to as a “fishy” odour) and thin, and milky in consistency. It is an indication of bacterial vaginosis, a condition where an upsetting of pH levels in the environment of the vagina causes the overgrowth of naturally present bacteria. There can be many factors interfering with the pH levels, so do be mindful of changes in soaps, and avoid douching the vagina.
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, and discharge is a method by which the vagina rids itself of harmful bacteria. Special soaps need not be used to clean the vagina nor douching, unless medically prescribed. Ensure that your child is informed of this, and do not feel insecure of any changes that they may observe in their bodies.
During menstruation, the requirement for vaginal hygiene cannot be disregarded. We have a set of tips that are helpful to follow during this time. No other special measures need to be taken apart from them unless your child has a pre-existing condition that may require them. (This image in an aide we use during our talks!)
Another situation when vaginal hygiene needs to be maintained is before, during, and after sexual intercourse. This is, understandably, difficult to bring up, albeit necessary. Your child should know that it is important to practice safe sex, and know the contraceptives that they can use. In case they feel discomfort or pain during or after sexual intercourse, it is possible that they have an illness that needs to be examined. Do not hesitate to inform them of such instances, for leaving this in the dark may only make it worse. It lies on your shoulders to create an environment where such discussions can be held without shame.
Until next time,
Yuvana from the REDefine Team
Featured Artwork by Prathna Anand
Cleveland Clinic. “Vaginitis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9131-vaginitis. Accessed 11 July 2021.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Bacterial Vaginosis – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 1998–2021 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 1 May 2019, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bacterial-vaginosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352279.
Shkodzik, Kate, MD. “All Types of Vaginal Discharge: What Do They Really Indicate?” Flo, 2021 Flo Health, 24 May 2021, flo.health/menstrual-cycle/health/vaginal-discharge/all-types-of-vaginal-discharge-what-do-they-really-indicate.
Wahlgren, Kara, and Carolyn Twersky. “Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Discharge.” Seventeen, 2021 Hearst Magazine Media, Inc., 3 Dec. 2018, http://www.seventeen.com/health/sex-health/a46186/there-are-9-types-of-vaginal-discharge-heres-what-they-mean.