During all the hoo-ha (pun intended) about Femfresh avoiding use of the words vulva or vagina in advertisements for their feminine hygiene products, I was encouraged to read comments on something other than the childish language being used. Many people commenting on the Femfresh campaign were quick to point out that vaginal deodorants can cause bacterial vaginosis.
Now, I had no idea what this was a few years ago. I'd not seen any information on this condition and so, when I noticed a bit more discharge than usual, I bought some Femfresh wash and resolved to keep myself a bit cleaner. After all, you smell when you're dirty, right? So, I washed more often and bought boxes and boxes of panty liners. Problem solved, right?
Wrong! Much to my frustration, it didn't go away and I kept feeling dirty... like I was doing something wrong. Why was keeping clean not helping? It was only when I paid a visit to my local sexual health clinic that I discovered what the problem was. I had bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is a condition where the balance of bacteria in your vagina becomes more bad than good. It may be common but, annoyingly, no one really knows for sure what causes it. The NHS website says:
"What leads to this imbalance is still unclear. It is not classed as a typical sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it can develop after having sex with a new partner. There is no evidence that a woman with BV can pass on any type of infection to her male sexual partner. But the same may not be true for women who have sex with other women. You can also get bacterial vaginosis if you: use scented soaps or bubble baths, have an intrauterine device (IUD), smoke or use vaginal deodorant."
So, it's not really an STI, because you can't "catch" it, but sex can trigger it or make it worse. That makes it tricky to explain to partners. However, despite the fact that I was extremely conscious of the smell and discharge on a daily basis, I was clearly managing to keep it under control as no one else noticed. Still, this didn't stop it getting me down. When you're used to washing with soaps and cleansers, water alone doesn't feel like it's doing any good.
I was prescribed a week-long course of antibiotics and my symptoms went away, thankfully. Rather annoyingly though, they returned a few months later. As I knew what it was this time, I went straight to my GP, who prescribed two different types of antibiotics which did nothing other than stop me drinking alcohol for five days. Then I tried a gel that I got over the counter at a chemist, and got what was effectively a nappy rash!
After trying an antibiotic cream that was prescribed following a smear test, and failing to clear it once more, I decided to return to the clinic and get checked out again. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics (metronidazole) and all is well again... for now. I've bought an unscented shower gel and ditched the "feminine wash". I'm still avoiding cigarettes and think I'm going to investigate a more gentle hand wash detergent for my delicate lingerie.
Whether or not my BV comes back again, one way I can do some good is by raising awareness. Don't listen to people who say that women's genitals naturally smell bad. The fact is that, yes, vaginas do often smell but that is usually not a bad thing. A woman's natural smell is nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you start to notice that you smell different, or have more discharge that is a different colour/texture to what you usually experience, it might be a good idea to get yourself checked out.
I'd recommend finding out where your nearest sexual health clinic is, as they know more about infections and conditions of the genital area than your GP will. In my experience, they're friendly and non-judgemental, so there's no need to be embarrassed. Whatever your symptoms, they will probably have seen worse! No one's going to look after your vagina on your behalf, so take charge and get it sorted. It's far more common than you think.
Lori Smith is the BitchBuzz Sex & Relationships columnist and a regular blogger on many subjects from fashion to feminism. She thinks that the staff at 56 Dean Street in London are amazing and that the NHS deserves a massive cheer, not just at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Image via zigazou76's Flickr photostream.