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What Can You Do to Keep Vaginal pH Levels in Balance?

The vagina is a delicate ecosystem that relies on balanced pH levels. Adequate pH can help prevent the development of bacterial vaginosis and play a role in protecting you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Practicing good hygiene and safe sex, avoiding harsh soaps and douching, wearing breathable cotton underwear and maintaining a healthy diet can help keep vaginal pH levels in check.

What is a normal vaginal pH?

Vaginal pH levels refer to the acidity of the vagina. The normal vaginal pH levels are considered to be between 3.8 and 4.5, which is slightly acidic. Vaginal microbiome is a specific community of microorganisms living in the vagina, mainly consisting of Lactobacillus bacteria. These bacteria produce acidic pH and substances that kill potentially harmful microorganisms, therefore are considered "good bacteria". When the amount of Lactobacilli is reduced, pH becomes imbalanced, allowing the "bad bacteria" or other microorganisms to overgrow and cause vaginitis (the inflammation of the vagina).

Maintaining a healthy vaginal pH helps prevent infections and aids in overall vaginal health.

What can alter vaginal pH levels?

Vaginal pH levels can vary during the lifetime. These are the main factors that can affect vaginal pH levels:

  • Menstrual cycle and hormonal changes. Estrogen plays a key role in maintaining an acidic vaginal pH, helping promote the growth of healthy bacteria. During menopause, estrogen levels decrease, leading to an increase in vaginal pH. This change can make the vagina more susceptible to infections.
  • Sexual activity. After sexual intercourse, vaginal pH levels can increase due to higher semen pH levels.
  • Hygiene habits and products. Frequent use of feminine washes, douches, and wipes can disrupt the natural balance in the vagina. Scented products (e.g., pads, tampons, and sprays) are known for having potentially harmful chemicals and fragrances, which may lead to irritation and allergic reactions. Also, wearing tight clothing, especially made of synthetic fabrics, traps moisture and heat, creating a breeding ground for microorganisms.
  • Infections. Bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis are common vaginal infections which are associated with higher pH levels.
  • Antibiotics. Antibiotics can increase the risk of vaginal infections which can alter pH levels. This is because they eliminate not only harmful bacteria but also beneficial ones that help maintain normal vaginal pH levels.

How to keep vaginal pH levels in balance

Maintaining balanced vaginal pH levels shouldn't be difficult - it's more about avoiding potentially harmful practices than doing something to improve it. Here are some tips and tricks for keeping you vaginal pH normal:

Use protection during sex

As mentioned previously, semen has higher pH levels, which can affect the vaginal environment. Unprotected intercourse puts you at risk of getting sexually transmitted infections, and some of them are associated with altered vaginal pH levels. Using condoms may help maintain good pH levels and protect from STIs.

Avoid scented hygiene products

The vagina is self-cleansing and there is no need to wash it, douche it, or perfume it. Scented hygiene products can disrupt the vaginal pH, and result in irritation, itching, and dryness. This is often due to the presence of synthetic fragrances and other chemicals in these products. Additionally, the fragrances used in scented hygiene products can trigger allergic reactions.

Avoid harsh soaps

Harsh soaps can have similar effects on the vagina as scented hygiene products. Most of the time, plain warm water is enough for cleaning the vulva. If using a cleanser if preferred, it's important to use a mild product specifically formulated for intimate hygiene.

Avoid douching

Vaginal douching is a practice that involves spraying water, baking soda, or other liquids into the vagina to cleanse it. This kind of cleaning is completely unnecessary and potentially harmful: there is no need to wash or douche the vagina, only the external genitalia should be cleaned.

Unnecessary antibiotic use

Antibiotics, as mentioned before, are intended eliminate harmful bacteria that cause illness and can be neccesarry. However, they can also disrupt the balance of good bacteria in the body, potentially leading to bacterial imbalance in the vagina and inflammation.

Do you need to address vaginal pH levels?

You should address your vaginal pH levels only if they cause unpleasant symptoms or changes in your vaginal area. Imbalanced vaginal pH per se does not have any symptoms, as it's not a condition itself. Instead, some types of vaginitis are associated with altered pH levels. Symptoms of vaginitis may include:

  • Changes in vaginal discharge (color, texture, bad odor)
  • Itching or irritation in the vaginal area
  • Pain during sex
  • Burning sensation during urination

Bacterial vaginosis, which may present with greyish discharge and fishy odor, is associated with vaginal pH values greater than 4.5. Trichomoniasis, a type of STI caused by a parasite Trichomonas vaginalis, can present with a green-yellow frothy discharge, foul odor, painful intercourse and urination. Vaginal pH levels in patients with trichomoniasis may be elevated up to 5.0-6.5 or even higher. Candidiasis, also known as a yeast infection, known for causing white, cottage-cheese like discharge and vulvar burning and itching, usually does not affect the pH.

If you wish to check your vaginal pH levels for curiosity, there are vaginal pH tests sold in pharmacies or online that are available in the form of strips or test kits. Keep in mind that while the pH test may potentially provide you with some information about your vaginal health, it may not entirely accurate and results may be influenced by your menstrual cycle, sexual activity, or use of hygiene products.

When should you seek professional help?

If you are experiencing vaginal irritation, itching, dryness, burning or stinging sensations in the vulvar area, change of vaginal discharge, and other symptoms that seem suspicious, consult your gynecologist. Your vaginal health will be properly evaluated, and treatment options will be designed to help get your vaginal pH levels back on track. This may include vaginal creams, tablets, or capsules, as well as lifestyle changes.

It is important to keep the balance of your vaginal pH levels. It can be done by practicing good hygiene, avoiding irritants, and living a healthy lifestyle. Lactobacillus are the main good bacteria that grow in the vagina and are crucial to maintaining normal vaginal pH levels. Always seek professional help if you experience any of the unpleasant symptoms or think that you may have a vaginal infection.

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