For the girls - your vagina
Looking after your vagina
The vagina is the opening that leads from your external genitals (between your legs) to the uterus (womb) and your other internal reproductive organs. The skin you can see between your legs on the outside of your genitals is called the vulva. The neck or opening of the uterus inside the vagina is called the cervix.
It’s good to know what goes where and what is what – check out the diagram of the female genitals below.
Many people think the hymen is like a piece of gladwrap that seals the end of the vagina and that the first time you have sex it is broken. The hymen is actually a collar of tissue attached to the vaginal wall just inside the vaginal opening, with an opening in the centre. All women are born with a hymen.
The thickness and elasticity of the hymen varies according to the level of oestrogen (female hormones) in the body. Before puberty, the hymen does not have much stretch, so would usually be damaged if a large enough object passed through it. Once you go through puberty and start to develop oestrogen, the hymen becomes thickened and more elastic in nature. At this point, it looks like a hair scrunchy. It will easily accommodate an object such as a tampon or penis and simply stretches out and back.
Women sometimes bleed the first time they have sex, because some hymens are more elastic than others. There is no way of predicting who has a stretchier hymen, and who will bleed and who won't. However, many women will not bleed the first time they have sex. Some women develop a small tear in the hymen edge when it stretches and this may bleed. Usually this is not serious and heals quickly. Others may feel some pain or discomfort. The important message here is that we cannot tell by looking at someone's hymen whether they’re still a virgin or not.
Following puberty, a milky white discharge without any smell from the vagina is normal. This discharge is due to the female hormone oestrogen and bacteria that are normally present in the vagina. The amount of discharge varies from woman to woman, and can vary according to different stages of the menstrual cycle (your periods).
What is not normal?
It is normal and healthy to have some vaginal discharge. A healthy vagina usually feels wet. The wetness is a healthy discharge that keeps the vagina clean. The healthy discharge is clear or whitish and dries yellow on your underwear. There should be no noticeable smell if you wash every day. If there is any change to the colour, smell, amount or texture of this discharge, this could mean something is going on inside your vagina and could be an infection, especially if you have had unprotected sex.
An abnormal vaginal discharge may:
- be an increased amount of discharge
- have an unpleasant smell
- be a yellow or green colour
- be accompanied by itching, irritation or swelling and pain (in the vulva or vagina).
Abnormal vaginal discharge may be caused by:
- a sexually transmissible infection
- a tampon that is left in too long
- something put into the vagina and left there
- an allergy to latex (condoms) or medicated vaginal creams
- other irritation.
Normal bleeding (the menstrual period) varies a lot from woman to woman and usually persists for three to seven days every month. Some women have light bleeding while others experience heavy bleeding for a day or two, which then becomes lighter. A normal menstrual cycle occurs every 22 to 35 days.
During adolescence, as girls grow older, the interval between periods can be quite irregular with each woman tending to develop her own pattern. Read more about your periods.
What is abnormal bleeding?
Unusual vaginal bleeding, such as between periods or after sex, may be a sign of an infection or another problem. Some of these can be serious. For example, bleeding during pregnancy is serious and may indicate that you might lose the baby. Abnormal bleeding may also cause problems later in life if it is not treated.
If you are experiencing abnormal bleeding, you may have the following symptoms:
- excessively heavy periods (with a lot of blood and over more than just a couple of days) needing double pads or a pad and a tampon
- clotted blood (blood in thick clumps)
- irregular and unpredictable bleeding (happens all of a sudden and not at the expected time of the next period)
- bleeding between periods (including spotting of small amounts of blood)
- bleeding after sex.
Common causes of abnormal bleeding include:
- a sexually transmissible infection, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea
- a uterine fibroid (a muscular growth in the wall of the uterus)
- a hormonal disturbance.