Frequently Asked Questions Expand All
The external female genital area is called the vulva. The outer folds of skin are called the labia majora, and the inner folds are called the labia minora. Within the labia minora is the vestibule.
The vagina and uretha open into the vestibule. On either side of the opening of the urethra are the openings to tiny glands called Skene glands. Two additional glands, called Bartholin glands, are located on either side of the vaginal opening. The clitoris is located at the top of the labia minora. It actually extends deep inside the body. The visible part is called the glans, which is partially covered by a fold of tissue called the clitoral hood. The perineum is the area between the anus and the vagina.
The hymen is a thin membrane that partially covers the entrance to the vagina. It sometimes can be torn or stretched during a woman’s first experience with sex (usually through sexual intercourse) or because of tampon use or medical procedures. The presence or absence of a hymen does not indicate “virginity.”
The vulva changes during puberty in response to an increase in estrogen and other hormones. The labia minora grow and widen. Pubic hair begins to grow. Pubic hair increases in amount over time and becomes thicker and curlier. The vulva also may change in color. In adults, the color can range from light pink to dark brown-red or black. Color also can vary with different ethnicities.
There is a wide range of normal genitalia and the appearance varies from woman to woman. The labia majora can range in width from one fourth of an inch to 2 inches. The labia minora often extend past the labia majora, but it also is normal if they do not. Some women have labia that are uneven in size. All of these differences are normal.
Most women have the same general pattern of pubic hair—an upside-down triangle. But there can be differences in the amount and texture of pubic hair among women. Some women choose to remove some or all of their pubic hair, but there is no medical or hygienic reason to do so. Some ways for removing the hair can increase the risk of infection. Injury can occur during shaving or waxing.
It is a good idea to become familiar with what is usual for your own vulva. If you see changes in the skin color (redness, dark- or light-colored spots), including moles, or if you have any new bumps or painful swelling, itching, or burning that do not go away, contact your gynecologist.
At puberty, the vagina begins to produce discharge. This discharge is normal. It is mostly water and also contains microorganisms. The discharge naturally keeps the genital area clean and healthy by removing dead cells from the lining of the vagina. The amount and makeup of normal discharge change throughout the menstrual cycle.
Normal vaginal discharge is clear to white and does not have a noticeable odor. Signs of abnormal discharge include a change in the color, odor, amount, or consistency from what is usual for you. A certain amount of vaginal odor is normal. If the odor is strong and noticeable, an infection or other problem may be the cause. If you feel that you need to cover up the odor, you may have a medical condition that needs treatment. Sprays, deodorants, and douches are not recommended and may make things worse.
Estrogen helps keep the vaginal lining thick and supple and encourages the growth of lactobacilli. These bacteria make a substance that keeps the vagina slightly acidic. The acidity protects the vagina from harmful, disease-causing microorganisms. Yeast also may be present in the healthy vagina. The natural acidity of the vagina helps keep yeast and other microorganisms from growing out of control.
Vaginal infections can occur if anything disrupts the natural balance of the bacteria that normally are present in your vagina. Two common infections are yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis (BV).
A yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina. This can result from lubricants, spermicides, taking antibiotics (which destroy the “good” bacteria in the vagina), or pregnancy. The most common symptoms are itching and burning of the vulva. Yeast infections can be treated either by placing antiyeast medication into the vagina or by taking a pill.
Bacterial vaginosis is caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria that normally live in the vagina. The main symptom is increased discharge with a strong odor often described as “fishy.” This infection is treated with antibiotics, either taken by mouth or inserted into the vagina.
During pregnancy, the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone increase. As more estrogen and more blood flows to the vaginal area, your vulva may become swollen. The color of your vulvar skin and the opening of your vagina may darken. You may have more normal vaginal discharge. Hormonal changes also may cause changes in the balance of yeast and bacteria in the vagina. Vaginal infections are more common during pregnancy.
Some women may develop varicose veinsin the vagina, vulva, and anus (these usually are called hemorroids) during pregnancy. They may be uncomfortable, but they usually go away after pregnancy.
During childbirth, the skin of the perineum stretches to accommodate the baby’s head. Sometimes, the skin and tissues of the perineum tear. Minor tears may heal on their own without stitches, but some tears need surgical repair. Another problem after childbirth is vaginal dryness, especially if you are breastfeeding. Vaginal dryness can be caused by changes in hormone levels. Lubricants and local estrogen therapy can be used to help with this problem.
Decreasing estrogen levels can affect your vagina and urinary tract during menopause. Over time, your vaginal lining can get thinner, dryer, and less elastic. The decrease in estrogen also may thin the lining of your urinary tract. As a result of these changes, many women have symptoms that are known as genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM).
Signs and symptoms of GSM include the following:
- Vaginal burning and itching
- Decreased lubrication during sex, leading to painful intercourse
- Bleeding after sex
- More frequent vaginal and urinary tract infections
- Frequent urination
All of these changes can affect a woman’s enjoyment of sex and the way she feels about herself. It is estimated that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 menopausal women have at least one of these signs and symptoms.
Many treatment options are available to address the signs and symptoms of GSM. Some are available over the counter without a prescription. Others need to be prescribed by your gynecologist or other health care professional. Treatment options include the following:
- Vaginal moisturizers and lubricants—Moisturizers and lubricants can help relieve vaginal dryness and painful sexual intercourse. You can buy moisturizers and lubricants over the counter.
- Local estrogen therapy—With low-dose vaginal estrogen therapy (vaginal creams, vaginal rings, and vaginal tablets), a small dose of estrogen is released directly into the vaginal tissue. The estrogen helps restore the natural thickness and elasticity to the vaginal lining and also relieves dryness and irritation.
- Systemic estrogen therapy—With this type of estrogen therapy (pills, skin patches, or gels or sprays applied to the skin), estrogen is released into the bloodstream and travels to the organs and tissues where it is needed. Women who still have a uterus also need to take progestin when taking estrogen therapy. Progestin helps reduce the risk of cancer of the lining of the uterus that occurs when estrogen is used alone.
- Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)—These medications stimulate certain tissues that respond to estrogen while not stimulating other tissues that respond to estrogen. Although SERMs are not estrogen, some may have risks similar to those of estrogen.
Antibiotics: Drugs that treat certain types of infections.
Bacteria: One-celled organisms that can cause infections in the human body.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV): A condition in which the normal balance of bacteria is changed by an overgrowth of other bacteria. Symptoms may include vaginal discharge, fishy odor, pain, itching, and burning.
Bartholin Glands: Two glands located on either side of the vaginal opening that make a fluid during sexual activity.
Clitoris: A female sex organ found near the opening of the vagina.
Estrogen: A female hormone produced in the ovaries.
Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause (GSM): A collection of signs and symptoms caused by a decrease in estrogen and other sex hormones. Signs and symptoms can include vaginal dryness, pain with sex, bladder symptoms, frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs), burning, itching, and irritation.
Gynecologist: A doctor with special training and education in women’s health.
Hemorrhoids: Swollen blood vessels located in or around the anus.
Hormones: Substances made in the body that controls the function of cells or organs.
Hymen: A membrane at the entrance of the vaginal opening.
Labia Majora: The outer folds of tissue of the external female genital area.
Labia Minora: The inner folds of tissue of the external female genital area.
Lactobacilli: A type of bacteria normally found in large numbers in the vagina. These bacteria help keep the vagina acidic and prevent overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria.
Menopause: The time when a woman’s menstrual periods stop permanently. Menopause is confirmed after 1 year of no periods.
Menstrual Cycle: The monthly process of changes that occur to prepare a woman’s body for possible pregnancy. A menstrual cycle is defined as the first day of menstrual bleeding of one cycle to the first day of menstrual bleeding of the next cycle.
Microorganisms: Life forms that are invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen with a microscope. Bacteria are an example.
Perineum: The area between the vagina and the anus.
Progesterone: A female hormone that is made in the ovaries and that prepares the lining of the uterus for pregnancy.
Progestin: A synthetic form of progesterone that is similar to the hormone produced naturally by the body.
Puberty: The stage of life when the reproductive organs start to function and other sex features develop. For women, this is the time when menstrual periods start and the breasts develop.
Sexual Intercourse: The act of the penis of the male entering the vagina of the female. Also called “having sex” or “making love.”
Skene Glands: Glands located on either side of the urethra and urethral opening.
Urethra: A tube-like structure. Urine flows through this tube when it leaves the body.
Uterus: A muscular organ in the female pelvis. During pregnancy, this organ holds and nourishes the fetus.
Vagina: A tube-like structure surrounded by muscles. The vagina leads from the uterus to the outside of the body.
Varicose Veins: Swollen, twisted veins that are often caused by poor blood flow.
Vestibule: The tissue surrounding the opening of the vagina.
Vulva: The external female genital area.
Yeast Infection: An infection caused by an overgrowth of a fungus. Symptoms may include itching, burning, and irritation of the vulva or vagina and a thick, white discharge.
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Published: January 2020
Last reviewed: January 2022
Copyright 2023 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. All rights reserved. Read copyright and permissions information.
This information is designed as an educational aid for the public. It offers current information and opinions related to women's health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care. It does not explain all of the proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for the advice of a physician. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.
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