I continue to be amazed when a couple comes into my office for various health issues and, during the conversation, they are surprised to learn that odorous vaginal discharge is not normal.
One husband told me, “Well, Doc, all men know it's like deep sea diving, just take a deep breath and go in." Really? That's pretty sad to think that so many women (and the men they love) feel that pungent, strong or "fishy" vaginal odor is just normal.
So what causes vaginal odor to start in the first place? Why is it so hard to get rid of? Why does it keep coming back over and over again? Can it cause health problems?
It concerns me that so many of you, because you're worried about odor or cleanliness, continue to believe that DOUCHING is 'okay' once in a while. Right? You ask yourselves, “What can it hurt? It makes me feel clean and fresh, and it's so nice to clean out discharge or old period blood. I don’t’ want him down there if it's not fresh and clean.” But it's this obsession that causes the problem in the first place. We are not supposed to smell or taste like chemicals or perfume! It is shocking to a man to smell that, and the perfumes and chemicals in douches, mixed with the odor you are worried about, is like covering up the bathroom with freshener spray. The smell is still there, just now mixed with freshener – which can be worse.
An estimated 40% of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 continue to use a vaginal douche, even though there are no studies that have ever shown that douching has benefits at all. In fact, we know that douching can actually increase the risk of infections, cause pregnancy complications, and create other health problems.
Douching started many years ago and is practiced in Europe and many other countries. It is a method to wash out the vagina, usually with a mixture of water and vinegar. Douches that are sold in drugstores and grocery stores contain antiseptics and fragrances. A douche comes in a bottle or bag and is sprayed through a tube upward into the vagina toward the cervix, sometimes with too much pressure.
Douching is known to cause many problems for women. One of the most common is vaginal infections like yeast or bacterial vaginosis. That's because it upsets the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina (called vaginal flora) which has the purpose of maintaining a low, more acidic, pH. Changing this acidic balance makes the environment more favorable for the growth of bacteria that cause infection. We have talked before how the low pH is the vagina's defense against infection and how it is able to self-clean. If the good bacteria is constantly being washed out, how can the vagina protect itself?
We know that women who stopped douching were less likely to have bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and vaginal odor. Note, having bacterial vaginosis can increase the risk of preterm labor and other more serious infections:
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). PID is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and/or ovaries that can actually get inside your entire body through the tubes as they are open into your abdomen. Douching can push infection from your vagina into your uterus through your tubes and into your abdomen. Women who douche have a 73% higher risk of getting PID!
- Women who douche more than once a week also have more difficulty getting pregnant than those who don't douche.
- Douching also increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy – for the same reason it puts you at risk for PID. With an ectopic pregnancy, the embryo implants outside the uterus, like in the fallopian tube or ovary.
- Douching at least once a week has also been linked to an increased chance of developing cervical cancer.
WaterWorks, which is FDA-cleared to alleviate vaginal odor, is a wonderful help to women. It has a design like a douche, but is very different. With WaterWorks, the water sprinkles outward, not upward, to gently clean the inside of your vagina. It uses only fresh, warm water (no chemicals), so it is all natural. It is used by so many women for regular feminine hygiene, like cleaning out period blood, semen after sex and excess discharge. It can be used daily as part of your normal bathing. The unique, patented design of the medical-grade stainless steel nozzle is what prevents and removes vaginal odor.
Have a safe and wonderful week,
Dr. Susan Boyd, MD