Getting to know your genitals and knowing how to care for them is super important. Not only does it allow you to keep them healthy, it also means that if something changes or doesn’t feel quite right down there, you can explore what might be going on.
What are genitals?
Put simply, genitals, are our external sex organs (meaning on the outside of our bodies), however, you may think of them as the body parts we have ‘down there’. This includes the penis, vagina, testicles and vulva.
Although the anus and the mouth are body parts that are commonly used for sex, technically they aren’t considered genitals.
Vulvas and vaginas
People who have vulvas and vaginas often use the terms interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things. The vulva is the outer part of the genitalia. The vulva includes the labia minora (flaps) and labia majora (lips) and the clitoris. The vagina on the other hand is a closed muscular canal that extends from the outside of the vulva to the neck of the uterus (cervix). There are lots of things that can affect the health of vulvas and vaginas, including:
- Sex. Whether you’re having penetrative, digital (using fingers) or oral sex, you need to make sure you’re protected against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This could include using condoms, dams or internal condoms.
- UTIs. A UTI (urinary tract infection) is an infection of the urinary system. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract, the bladder and urethra (pee hole). UTIs don’t always cause symptoms but if they do, they can include painful urination, blood in urine, a temperature, cramping, lower back pain and a need to pee frequently even when little to no pee comes out. While UTIs range from uncomfortable to downright painful, they’re pretty simple to treat with antibiotics.
- Hormone levels. Changes in hormone levels can affect the vagina. For example, estrogen production declines during breastfeeding . Low levels of estrogen can cause the vaginal lining to thin (vaginal atrophy), which can make sex painful for some people.
- Your flora. Your vaginal flora is made up of billions of different bacteria, the most important of which is lactobacilli, the good bacteria responsible for keeping infections (like thrush) at bay. The balance of good and bad bacteria can be affected by some antibiotics or douching. , allergies and diet changes. That’s when you want to keep an eye out for symptoms of thrush. Yeast infections or thrush can be passed on to a sexual partner, so it’s best to treat it and wait for it to fully clear before having sex again.
- Your pH balance. Time for some science! pH is the measurement of how acidic or alkaline a substance is, and we use that measurement when we talk about a healthy vagina. An acidic vaginal environment prevents bad bacteria and pathogens from over-growing and causing infections like bacterial vaginosis and thrush. Vaginal discharge is very normal unless it’s suddenly different in colour, texture or odour and/or is accompanied by other symptoms like burning when you pee, itchiness, pain or bleeding during sex.
- Health conditions. Some conditions, such as endometriosis (endo) and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) are known to have symptoms like generalised pain in the lower abdomen, lower back and pelvis. Pain during sex and other digital penetration eg. inserting a tampon or menstrual cup can also occur.
A lot of people with endo and/or PID excessively bleed when they have their period, and while menstrual blood itself is healthy, constant wiping of that area can irritate the delicate skin.
- How you clean a vulva/vagina. Did you know that the vagina is a self-cleaning organ? Well you do now, so step away from the ‘vaginal’ washes. To keep everything feeling and smelling fresh down there you can use warm water to wash your vulva (the outside bits).
When most people think about penis health, their main concerns are STIs and erectile dysfunction (ED). While these conditions can certainly affect the health of a penis, penis health is about so much more than that. There are many different things that can impact or indicate the health of a penis including:
- Hormone levels. Things like low testosterone levels can impact the health and function of a penis and contribute to conditions like erectile dysfunction.
- STIs. correctly using a condom every time you have sex (oral, anal and vaginal) is the best way to reduce your risk of STIs and keep your penis happy and healthy.
- Being too rough. It’s important that you take care when having rough sex to avoid any injury to the penis. Common injuries include pulling the foreskin back too quickly and tearing it, and bending an erect penis, which can cause a penis fracture. Ouch! Make sure to use plenty of lube (water based is a good all-rounder) to make for a more enjoyable, pleasurable and safer experience.
- How you clean a penis. One of the most important things that affects penis health is how you clean it. It’s important to wash your penis and groin area every day with soap and water to keep it clean and if you’re uncircumcised, pay special attention to cleaning the foreskin. If you don’t properly clean the penis, it can lead to a build-up of smegma which can result in inflammation of the head of the penis and in some cases lead to balanitis.
When it comes to genital health, the most important thing is to pay attention to your body and get to know what is and isn’t normal for you.
If anything looks, feels or smells different for you, it’s time to visit your GP to get it checked out because once you know what the cause is, you can treat it!
It’s also a good idea to have a routine STI test every 12 months or whenever you change sexual partners, regardless of any changes because many STIs don’t show any symptoms.
Do you have questions about sexual health? Why not join the conversation on the Play Safe sex and relationship forum or ask Nurse Nettie a question. Or find out more about STI testing and STI treatment in Sydney and NSW, you’ll find all the information you need here.