Your vagina is just another part of you, just like your heart or brain or legs. So it makes sense to get to know it.
"Some women don't have any idea what's normal and what's not normal," says Jennifer Ashton, MD, author of The Body Scoop for Girls: A Straight-Talk Guide to a Healthy, Beautiful You. And that can cause many young women to think that everything's bad.
These suggestions can help you be smart and healthy about your vagina.
1. Know what your girl parts look like.
You can bet guys know their own bodies! Get to know yours. Use a hand mirror to explore your vulva (folds of skin outside the vagina) and vagina. You'll see what's where, and be able to tell if something is wrong.
One common blooper is to think that pee comes out of the vagina. Urine comes out of a completely different opening that lies between the clitoris and the vagina.
Most of the vagina itself lies inside your body, so an illustration is a good way to get to know it.
"Women freak out when they lose something in their vagina," says Lissa Rankin, MD, author of What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. "They think the vagina doesn't end, so if they lose a tampon, it will end up in their lung."
For the record, your vagina is about three to five inches long. It connects to your uterus (womb), but the opening to the uterus (called the cervical os) is very small -- unless you're about to deliver a baby. So a tampon can't get lost or move beyond your vagina.
2. You don't need to douche or use special cleaners.
Your vagina is self-cleaning. If anything, you just need a mild soap or shampoo on your pubic hair and the outer vulva. Avoid rubbing with a washcloth. Don't douche or use other special cleaning products for your vagina. These can ruin the normal balance of bacteria and cause problems.
3. Vaginal discharge is normal when it's clear.
The vagina is a mucus membrane. That means fluids are supposed to be there. And you may see a few spots on your underwear. Some women have more discharge than others. Being on the birth control pill can affect discharge.
4. Changes in discharge can mean an infection.
Yeast infections are fairly common. They tend to cause a white discharge that looks like cottage-cheese. They bring a lot of itching and redness but no odor. They're usually treated with creams or other meds that go directly into the vagina. Doctors sometimes prescribe pills.
Another common infection, called bacterial vaginosis, causes a thin, white or gray discharge. It smells fishy, especially after sex.
If you have itching, burning, or unusual discharge for more than one week, you should see a doctor.
5. Thongs don't cause yeast infections.
A skinny strip of fabric sits very close to your vagina when you wear thong underwear, but it's probably not to blame for a yeast infection. Two things do make you more likely to have a yeast infection: tight clothing and panties made of nylon.
If you already have an infection, wearing a thong might add to your misery, though. It can ride up and rub against irritated skin around your vagina.
In those cases, stick with loose-fitting briefs made of cotton. Or go bare while you sleep until the problem clears. If yeast infections keep coming back, ask your doctor whether switching to briefs for a few months could help.
6. Sex shouldn't be painful.
Many women suffer in silence, says Rankin, because they are too embarrassed to say anything when sex hurts. If this is the case for you, set up a visit to your gynecologist. Make it separate from your regular exam. That gives you time to explain your concerns and figure out possible causes.
7. A good gynecologist is important.
To find a doctor you like, set up a get-to-know-you appointment first. Make sure that you have a good rapport with your gynecologist. You should feel like you can bring up any worry or question. Ashton tells women in their late teens and 20s to see their doctor every six months once they're sexually active.