6 things you should know about your genital health

Been a while since your last sex-ed class? Brush up on your genital health IQ with these six common questions, answered by an expert

6 things you should know about your genital health

Source: Web exclusive, October 2009

We realize it can be embarrassing to talk about genital health, but it’s also important to know the facts. To help you understand what’s up down there, we asked Dr. Unjali Malhotra, medical director for B.C.’s Options for Sexual Health, to answer our questions about genital health.

1. How can I tell if my partner or I has genital warts?

Diagnosing genital warts can be tricky because there are several different kinds of genital warts, says Malhotra.  One type is dome-shaped and looks similar to a pimple. "It would be very hard for someone to tell if they had a wart of if they just pulled a hair," she says. The second type is more obviously wart-like: it’s bumpy and shaped like the head of a cauliflower. These can appear anywhere in the genital area, including inside the vagina and on the anus.

Genital warts will look the same on your guy, but some people are merely carriers of the human papillomavirus (HPV, the virus that causes genital warts) and don’t display symptoms. "Over 80 percent of the population has HPV, so it’s likely that if you’re sexually active, you’re going to come in contact with it at some point," says Malhotra.

Bottom line: If you spot a suspicious bump, get it checked out as soon as possible. "Often [the bump] is just from shaving, waxing or something basic, but if it is an STI, you need to know," says Malhotra.

2. How much vaginal discharge is normal?

The answer to this is different for everyone because vaginal discharge can change with age, the type of birth control you choose or when you’re breastfeeding. But if you’re concerned that you have more discharge than normal or if it has a different odour, it’s best to have your doctor test for infections. "I highly recommend that no one treats their own vaginal discharge with over-the-counter agents until they have been examined, because not everything is a yeast infection," says Malhotra.

3. What is bacterial vaginosis?

Well, it’s not a yeast infection, but it may be mistaken for one. Though bacterial vaginosis may sound scary, this condition is really an overgrowth of normal bacteria in the vagina. Where a yeast infection often results in irritation and redness in the genital area, bacterial vaginosis just causes a lot of extra discharge. "Bacterial vaginosis is not an STI; it can happen for no reason at all or it can happen if a person is under a lot of stress, if they change partners frequently or if they change lubricants," says Malhotra.

If you’re bothered by bacterial vaginosis, your doctor can prescribe a round of antibiotics to clear up the symptoms. Left untreated, the condition might go away by itself but you’ll probably experience the discharge again in a few months.

4. Can men get yeast infections?

Yes indeed, and they may unwittingly pass them on to you.

Sometimes men will react to a yeast infection with clear signs such as flaking skin, redness or discomfort in the genital area. However, guys usually don’t experience any symptoms at all. "If you have a yeast infection and you’re having unprotected sex, you should get your partner treated as well," says Malhotra. This will prevent the two of you from passing the infection back and forth to each other. Send your man to the clinic for a pill he can take orally or to the pharmacy for a topical cream.

5. What’s the best solution for vaginal dryness?

If you’re 35 and older, your vagina might be losing lubrication as part of perimenopause, that estrogen-level roller coaster that signals the end of your reproductive cycle. Younger women may have their birth control to blame, as the pill can cause vaginal dryness for some people. Whatever the reason, Malhotra says this condition shouldn’t be ignored. "[Dryness] can be very traumatic to the vagina and can cause breaks in the skin," she says.

To make things more comfortable down there, your doctor might recommend a personal lubricant or prescribe an estrogen cream to be applied locally. Malhotra suggests trying a remedy that can be found on your kitchen shelf. "You can insert two fingers into the opening of the vagina and massage olive oil into the area," she says. Just remember that oil may cause a condom to break’wait an hour to have protected sex after an olive oil massage.

6. How is genital herpes diagnosed?

"Herpes is a viral STI and a lot of people don’t know they have it," says Malhotra. Many people carrying the virus never have an outbreak and are not diagnosed. If symptoms do present themselves, they include generally feeling unwell, a painful pelvic region that feels like a urinary tract infection or painful dome-shaped sores that are filled with fluid.

Doctors can perform a test for herpes, but unless you’re having an outbreak at the time the swab is taken, results can be unreliable. "If you’re not having an outbreak, you’re not shedding any of the virus and there won’t be any virus particles to pick up [on the swab]," she says. That makes it tough to tell if your partner is a genital herpes carrier or when the virus can spread. As always, the best way to minimize your risk for infection is to use condoms‘even if you and your partner have both tested negative for STIs.

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