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Most women have experienced times during which they have excess discharge from their vagina. Contrary to what is believed; vaginal discharge is not ‘bad’. It is the body’s way of keeping the vagina lubricated and healthy.
Seen during the middle of the cycle (fertile period), a normal vaginal discharge is about 4 ml a day of white or transparent, thick to thin, and odourless discharge. Its main function is to assist sperm to fertilise the ovum (egg). Oftentimes, its amount, odour and colour vary from one person to another.
Although the discharge can be more noticeable at different times of the month depending on ovulation, menstrual flow, sexual activity and birth control, some signs might indicate there could be a vaginal infection.
Sometimes, a vaginal discharge with a foul odour (bad smell), which is either yellowish or greenish could be an indicator of an infection. In addition, itching or rashes in and around the vagina could also be a pointer to a vaginal infection.
Many women have been affected by a vaginal infection at one point or the other in their lives. For some, these symptoms could be a source of embarrassment and disruption of intimacy with their sexual partners, especially when it is severe or recurring.
While the vagina may be prone to infections, since it is a warm, moist organ requiring a delicate balance of certain environmental factors and due to its proximity to the anus, there is mounting evidence that many products some women use vaginally ends up doing more harm than good. They make the sensitive skin of the vagina more prone to infection.
A new study suggested that women who use shower gels, soaps, and sexual lubricants such as petroleum jelly and baby oil in their vagina are putting themselves at higher risk of developing bacterial vaginosis (a condition that occurs when the bacterial balance becomes disrupted) and sexually transmitted infections like herpes, chlamydia and HIV.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, bacterial vaginosis occurs when the normal balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the vagina is disrupted. Its symptoms include discharge, pain, itching or burning. But most women have no symptoms, and the infection usually causes no long-term problems.
Moreover, bacterial vaginosis can make women more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Also, it could at times lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause infertility.
The researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles recruited 141 women in Los Angeles. They agreed to answer questionnaires about products they use and undergo laboratory tests for vaginal infections at the study’s outset and one year later. The researchers, according to the study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynaecology, found that 66 per cent of women reported washing, douching or inserting commercial lubricants or other over the counter products, other than tampons, in the previous month.
Among the women who used products intravaginally, 45 per cent used washes including commercial versions of vinegar-and-water mixtures, for example.
The most commonly employed products were sexual lubricants: 70 per cent of the product-using group used commercial lubricants, while 17 per cent reported using petroleum jelly and 13 per cent used oils.
Based on laboratory tests, the women who used products not intended for vaginal insertion, such as oils and petroleum jelly, were more likely to have yeast and bacterial infections.
For instance, 40 per cent of the women who used petroleum jelly as a vaginal lubricant had bacterial vaginosis - an infection that can be caused by a number of common bacterial species - compared to 18 per cent of women who did not insert petroleum jelly.
In addition, 44 per cent of women who reported using intravaginal oils tested positive for Candida, the fungus that causes yeast infections, compared to five per cent of women who did not use oils.
Researchers suggested the increased risk for these common infections might result from the products upsetting internal pH and beneficial microbe communities in the vaginal, thus encouraging harmful organisms to proliferate.
A representative for Vaseline manufacturer Unilever in an email to Reuters declared, “Vaseline Petroleum Jelly is for external use only, and we state this on our packaging for consumers. We do not recommend Vaseline Petroleum Jelly to be used as a vaginal lubricant and have not performed any testing to support this use. Vaseline petroleum jelly should also not be used as a sexual lubricant in combination with latex barrier protection, as it can degrade the latex.”
But commercial sexual lubricants, which are water based are better for internal use because the vagina can easily wash it off unlike the oily based types, thus reducing the chance of the lubricant upsetting the normal balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the vagina, said Dr Olufunmilayo Majekodunmi, a consultant medical microbiologist, at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.
She declared: “Once the normal vagina flora balance is disrupted, some other organisms can now overgrow such as Candida, thus leading to candidiasis. Also, this disruption can lead to bacterial vaginosis. This is why water-based sexual lubricants are usually recommended.”
In addition, experts say that the vagina is a self-regulating system and that it doesn’t need any kind of special creams or jellies to stay clean or hygienic. Washing it on the outside with soap and water is generally all the maintenance most women will ever need. Where dryness or other problems are experienced, the use of products specifically approved for the vagina is the best bet.
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