Bacteria in the vagina
There are lots of bacteria inside the vagina, and they’re there to protect it.
Professor Ronnie Lamont, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “The vagina contains more bacteria than anywhere else in the body after the bowel, but the bacteria are there for a reason.”
The good bacteria inside the vagina:
- provide “numerical dominance” – they outnumber other potential harmful bacteria that might enter the vagina
- help keep the vagina’s pH balance (how acidic the vagina is) at an even level, which helps keep the balance of bacteria healthy
- can produce bacteriocins (naturally occurring antibiotics) to reduce or kill other bacteria entering the vagina
- produce a substance that stops invading bacteria sticking to the vagina walls, which prevents bacteria invading the tissues
If the balance of bacteria is disturbed, this can lead to infection and inflammation.
Bacteria called lactobacilli help keep the vagina’s pH balance at its normal low level (less than pH 4.5), which also prevents the growth of other organisms.
If the pH of the vagina increases (it gets less acidic), the quality or amount of lactobacilli can fall and other bacteria can multiply.
This can result in infections such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush, which can cause symptoms including itching, irritation and abnormal discharge.
Washing your vagina
It’s a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina and cause irritation.
Use plain, unperfumed soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva) gently every day.
The vagina will clean itself inside your body with natural vaginal secretions (discharge).
“During your period, washing more than once a day may be helpful,” says Dr Elneil, who points out that keeping the perineal area between the vagina and anus clean is important, too.
“Good perineal hygiene is necessary by washing that area at least once a day using your normal bathing routines.”
“All women are different,” says Professor Lamont. “Some may wash with perfumed soap and not notice any problems.
“But if a woman has vulval irritation or symptoms, one of the first things you can do is use non-allergenic, plain soaps to see if that helps.”