Vaginas and Vulvas 101

Ladies, here’s how to take care of yourself down there, from studying the vulva to forgoing the douche.

Ladies, here’s how to take care of yourself down there, from studying the vulva to forgoing the douche.

A mom and her 2-year-old daughter are in the grocery store. The mother is a physician, and the father is a biologist, and together they’ve tried to teach their child the body parts – pretty typical information toddlers learn. So why was it so uncomfortable when, from the grocery store cart, among the cereals and canned goods and pasta sauces, the daughter joyously exclaims, “I have a vaginaaa!”?

The mom is conflicted. She wants to praise the girl for knowing her parts, but then again – oh my gosh, she said vagina in public!

Jeanne Conry, president of The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says this anecdote she heard from a friend exemplifies a challenge she faces as an OB-GYN. “We’re torn with being scientists, being appropriate and educating, and then facing a Victorian background that says ‘it’s not proper to talk about this.’” Cue the OB-GYN exam rooms, where many women let it all out. She talks with patients about their relationships, sex lives, fears, and of course, the ins and outs of their vaginas and vulvas.

Maybe you only really think about (let alone discuss) your vagina in the OB-GYN room. Or maybe, like the aforementioned toddler, you have no qualms about loudly chatting about your vagina in the supermarket. Whatever your thoughts, feelings and comfort level on the topic, the health of the vagina and vulva shouldn’t be ignored. Knowing how to properly care for them on your own will help you be safer, healthier and a more empowered patient.

Below, Conry and Debby Herbenick, co-director of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, share basic tips for keeping your vagina and vulva healthy.

Learn your lady parts. Not sure what the difference is between the vagina and the vulva? Can you identify the vestibule and inner and outer labias? It's common for many women to know very little about their genitals, says Herbenick, who is also the co-author of "Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva."

Understanding the vulva and vagina is not only important for communicating with a sexual partner, but also for communicating with your health care provider, she says. If something down there is in pain or uncomfortable, expressing specifics is more helpful than telling the nurse or doctor that your vagina hurts. For one, she'll have to figure out if you really do mean the vagina, which is often used to describe the vulva. (The vulva is your external genitals, while the vagina is actually the muscular tube connecting the vulva to the cervix of the uterus.) So right off the bat, you'll likely need to answer follow-up questions to clarify where you feel lousy in an OB-GYN exam room – a place where some women may already feel a bit vulnerable. There's nothing wrong with the follow-up questions, and chances are, the doctor or nurse will be able to identify the issue, but Herbenick says it's a barrier, "and why not teach women and girls the right words for their genitals?"

Look up a diagram of the vagina and vulva, and learn your parts if you don't already know them. However, note that everyone's vagina and vulva looks different, as discussed later. Don't expect to look exactly like diagrams.

Examine your vulva. Now that you're a vagina expert (or at least know the difference between the vagina and vulva), take a good look at yourself below the belt. In good lighting, remove your underwear and grab a hand mirror. Squat above the mirror, or prop yourself in front of it on the bed. Make a habit of examining your vulva about once a month, and "check for anything new or different about your genitals that you don't remember seeing before," Herbenick says, such as "new moles, lumps or bumps, or red or white patchy areas." If you notice any of these new developments, bring it up with a health care provider. Chances are, these occurrences don't indicate anything too major, but a health care provider can determine if they're precancerous, cancerous, a skin condition or possibly a sexually transmitted infection or disease, and begin treatment.