Staying Healthy Downstairs: A Guide to Feminine Hygiene
The vagina goes through a lot, from periods and sex to childbirth and menopause, so knowing the best methods to stay healthy downstairs is a must.
Updated: Monday 24 January 2022
Striving to keep your full body happy and healthy should include maintaining good vaginal hygiene. Affecting more than just your sex life, common problems with the vagina can reduce fertility, overall health, and self-confidence when left untreated, as well as affecting your ability to reach orgasm and your desire for sex. Infections such as vaginal thrush or urinary tract infections (UTIs) are very common amongst all women, but the likelihood of developing these can be reduced with the right preventative and reactive measures.
In this guide, we’ll explain what exactly thrush and UTIs are, why they appear, and how you can prevent and treat them, as well as discussing tips to maintain great vaginal health more broadly.
What is Vaginal Thrush and Why Does it Occur?
Thrush is a very common yeast infection that affects both women and men, although is much more prevalent in women. You can get thrush in your mouth, throat and skin, but most common is vaginal thrush, with around 75% of women at some point in their lives developing it, and half of these women experiencing repeat infections. It’s most common in women in their 20s and 30s, but you can suffer from thrush at any age. It’s important to note that although you can sometimes develop thrush after having sex, it is not a sexually transmitted disease. If you want to learn more about STIs, check out our other guides on Genital Herpes and Genital Warts.
Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the yeast fungus ‘candida’, which is found in many areas of the body without causing any harm. However, if the conditions are right for candida to multiply too fast, this can cause thrush to develop. Thrush tends to occur in warm, moist conditions, and a change in your vaginal bacteria balance can cause it to develop.
This often happens if:
- Irritation or damage occurs on the skin
- You’re taking antibiotics
- Your immune system is weakened (e.g. from chemotherapy or HIV)
- You have poorly controlled diabetes
- You’re pregnant
- You’re having hormone replacement therapy
The common symptoms of thrush include:
- Itchiness or soreness on the vulva (the outside area of the vagina)
- A thick, white discharge from the vagina (often described as similar to cottage cheese)
- Pain during sex
- Pain during urination
- Red, damaged or cracked skin (during severe thrush)
How Do I Treat and Prevent Vaginal Thrush?
Whilst very commonly occurring, the good news is that thrush is not typically a severe or serious condition thanks to treatment being widely available. Here are your options:
- Clotrimazole cream - clotrimazole is a powerful antifungal ingredient that fights fungal infections. Popular brands such as Canesten provide effective relief and are available in different creams. Canesten External 1% Cream and Canesten External 2% Cream are applied to the vulva or labia, and vary only in the strength of the active ingredient concentration to suit your level of severity. Canesten Internal Cream comes with an applicator to be inserted into the vagina to target any internal thrush symptoms, but is otherwise identical in terms of active ingredients.
- Fluconazole capsule - this treatment for genital thrush comes in a capsule form that’s taken orally. This super quick and easy-to-use treatment requires taking just one capsule to clear the infection. The capsule is also available with Canesten external cream to be used alongside the oral treatment to help provide immediate relief from itchiness or soreness. This form of treatment is called Canesten Duo and is a highly popular product given its dual action in clearing the infection.
Early prevention is always a preference over treating a present infection, and thankfully following the below precautions will reduce the chances of developing thrush:
- You should ditch the perfumed shower, bath products and soaps when cleaning the genital area, as these can alter the balance of healthy bacteria in and around the vagina. The vagina is self-cleaning and will produce a white or clear discharge as it cleans. Using just water or a mild/specialised soap is normally perfectly adequate. Some soaps such as the Femfresh Daily Wash allow for irritation-free washing of intimate areas due to its low pH level. Femfresh Wipes are also handy for conveniently freshening up whilst being kind to your sensitive skin, and are especially useful during your period.
- Do not douche your vagina (wash the inside of your vagina with water or a special douching fluid), as this can lead to an increased risk of developing thrush.
- Avoid using spermicidal jellies (a form of birth control inserted into the vagina) as these can increase your risk of thrush.
What are UTIs and Why Do They Occur?
Half of all women will get a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) over the course of their lifetime. Whilst men can also get UTIs, they are not as common, occurring in 1 in 20 men. Your urinary tract consists of organs that make urine and remove it from the body, running from the kidneys through the ureters to the bladder, before leaving the body through the urethra. The design of the urinary system minimises the risk of the kidneys developing an infection, achieving this by preventing urine from travelling back up into the kidneys from the bladder. Therefore the vast majority of UTIs occur in the bladder, known as cystitis, although they can also affect the urethra (urethritis), kidneys (pyelonephritis) or vagina (vaginitis).
Cystitis occurs when bacteria that live harmlessly on the skin or in the bowel, enters the urethra (where urine is excreted). The urethra is shorter in women than men, hence it being easier for bacteria to reach the bladder or kidneys in women.
Common scenarios in which this might happen include:
- During sex
- When inserting a tampon
- By wiping from back to front
- By not keeping the genital area clean and dry
- When inserting a catheter
- When using a diaphragm for contraception
Common symptoms of a urinary tract infection include:
- A painful or burning sensation when urinating
- Needing the toilet more often than usual during the night
- Needing the toilet more suddenly and more urgently than usual
- Urine that looks cloudy
- Urine containing blood
- Lower tummy or back pain
- A high temperature, or feeling hot and shivery
- A very low temperature of below 36°C
How Do I Treat and Prevent UTIs?
If you think you’ve developed a UTI, there are numerous methods of easing your symptoms and fighting the infection, from simple self-help measures to prescription medication.
To Ease the Symptoms
- To reduce the burning or stinging sensation when urinating, CanesOasis Oral Solution is a quick and effective treatment. Taken by mixing the sachet with water, the active ingredient sodium citrate makes the urine less acidic, reducing irritation. Note that this treatment is not suitable for men or children.
- Take over-the-counter pain relief medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
- Drink plenty of water to help flush out the infection.
- Fill a hot water bottle and place it on your lower tummy area to ease the discomfort.
To Fight the Infection
- If your GP diagnoses you with Cystitis, they’ll usually prescribe you a course of antibiotics. Taking effect within a day or two, this will usually be adequate to clear the infection, but if you keep getting cystitis your GP may prescribe you a low dose of antibiotics to take continuously over several months.
You can greatly reduce your chances of developing a UTI by following the straight-forward preventative steps below:
- Wipe from front to back when you go to the toilet. This reduces the likelihood of bacteria from the digestive system entering the urinary tract (a common cause of UTIs)
- Peeing as soon as possible after having sex to flush out bacteria entering the urethra
- Wash the skin around the vagina with water, both before and after sex
- Keep the genital area clean and dry whenever possible
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day so that you regularly pee
- Pee when you feel the urge to go, you shouldn’t hold it in. Also, fully empty your bladder when you pee.
- Avoid scented soaps
- Avoid consuming lots of alcohol and sugary foods or drinks
- Wear loose-fitting underwear made from cotton
How Should I Practice Good Vaginal Hygiene?
Maintaining a good level of general health, with regular exercise and having a healthy diet, will typically result in good vaginal health. Exercises such as walking and running will tone the pelvic floor, helping maintain good vaginal function. Besides being generally healthy, other specific considerations include:
- Avoiding perfumed soaps and other toiletries that could alter the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels, as well as causing irritation.
- Clean the vulva every day with specialist soaps such as Femfresh Daily Wash. It may be helpful during your period to wash more than once per day, taking particular care to keep the perineal area clean (the area between the vagina and anus). Femfresh Wipes are a perfect on-the-go option in this case.
- Avoid using vaginal douches as these will disrupt the natural, healthy bacteria levels in the vagina that are self-maintained.
- Keep clean before and after sex, ensuring you pee as soon as possible after having sex.
- Some oral contraceptives may cause changes to your vaginal discharge, dryness or breakthrough bleeding, but these symptoms usually resolve themselves; if they persist you may need to try different oral contraceptives until you find one that works for you.
- After giving birth, you may experience a temporary loss of some elasticity and strength in the vagina, so performing Kegel exercises will help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, supporting healthy bladder and bowel function.
- The vagina goes through significant changes during perimenopause, typically in your 40s, where estrogen levels in your body decrease. This vaginal atrophy may cause a burning sensation, redness, itching, or pain during sex. One way to slow vaginal atrophy from progressing is to have regular sex, which increases the blood flow to the vagina. Vaginal moisturisers, estrogen creams and tablets are available to tackle vaginal dryness. Vaginal atrophy can also be slowed by hormone therapy, maintaining a healthy weight, eliminating caffeine and tobacco from your diet, and doing bladder training exercises.
This incredible organ plays many important roles, and the body normally does a good job of keeping it naturally healthy. However, if and when infections do occur, it’s crucial to act quickly to prevent them from becoming a larger issue. Whether it’s switching your daily soap or using clinically-proven creams and other medication, treatment is widely available and affordable. For more information on any of our treatments, find everything you need on our product pages.