Feeling some itching or burning in your vaginal area? Or have you recently noticed a strong, fishy smell down there? You may be experiencing an unbalanced vaginal pH. Long story short, vaginal pH is the measure of how acidic or basic the environment of your vagina is. On a range of 0–14, a pH that's closer to 0 is more acidic, and one that's closer to 14 is more basic. A pH close to 7 is seen as neutral.
A healthy or "normal" vaginal pH typically doesn't fall in the neutral range, but instead is fairly acidic, falling somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5.
"It is kept that way by happy good guy bacteria there, called lactobacilli, which secrete acid as they digest their 'food,'" explains Mary Jane Minkin, MD, who is a clinical professor of obstetrics annd gynecology at Yale University.
Unfortunately, vaginal pH isn't always in balance. Vaginal pH can be thrown off for a number of reasons, including infections, chemicals, taking antibiotics, even semen, explains Kim Langdon, MD, who is a gynecologist based in Ohio.
Some signs you may be experiencing an unbalanced vaginal pH include:
- A strong fishy odor (this is often the case among people who have a common vaginal infection called bacterial vaginosis).
- A new onset of yellow or white vaginal discharge
- Vaginal itching or burning
Below, here's how to treat an unbalanced vaginal pH, as recommended by gynecologists.
See a Doctor
Before trying any sort of treatment regimen, the first thing you should do if you suspect you may have an unbalanced vaginal pH is to see a doctor.
"If you don't know what's going on, you should definitely see a doctor because you may need somebody that is trained in this field to be able to do a professional evaluation before you start trying 5,000 different home remedies," says Tamika K. Cross, MD, who is a gynecologist in Pearland, Texas.
Try an Oral Probiotic
If you've ever stepped into the supplements section of a supermarket, pharmacy, or health food store, you probably already know that you have a lot of options to choose from when it comes to probiotics. Minkin suggests a product called Pro-B, "which consists of the good guy bacteria and helps reestablish a good vaginal environment, helping these guys thrive, make acid, and keep the yeast and bacteria away."
Try a Vaginal Gel
Vaginal gels are designed to balance your vaginal pH if it is too high, or acidic. You'll find many vaginal gels available over the counter.
Don't Disrupt a Happy Vagina
If you're fortunate to have a healthy vaginal pH, one of the best things you can do to maintain it is to leave your vagina alone, Langdon explains. "It has its own self-cleansing method," she says.
Know That Antibiotics Can Disrupt Your Vaginal pH
Many people don't realize that there's a lot of good bacteria living within the vagina and vaginal flora.
"When you take any antibiotics for a UTI (urinary tract infection), an ear infection, or an upper respiratory infection, it can cause your pH to get thrown off because you're also killing some of the good bacteria that normally colonizes the vagina," Cross says. "This good bacteria produces the acid to the lactobacilli and keeps the acidity of the vagina stable."
Many different types of medications can throw off your vaginal pH, but antibiotics are the most common, she points out.
Know That Some Product Ingredients Can Be Harsh on the Vaginal Environment
"You could avoid different ingredients such as parabens, glycerin, silicone, and petroleum," Cross says. "If your pH is already thrown off, those ingredients are going to make it worse."
Stay Away From Strongly Scented Products
Scented body washes and soaps are a well-loved component of many people's shower routines. And this isn't necessarily a problem—these products can work wonders in keeping many parts of our bodies clean. But when it comes to keeping your vagina clean and happy, these products aren't the greatest.
To maintain a healthy vaginal pH, you're going to want to stay away from using heavily fragranced soaps and other products in your vaginal area.
"Heavily scented products can cause more irritation or harm than good," Cross says.
It turns out that the vagina does a pretty great job of cleaning itself, so you don't need to rely on many additional products, especially of the scented variety. On this same note, you'll also want to avoid douching unless it is recommended by your doctor.
Eat Some Yogurt
Yogurt contains Lactobacillus, which is a "good" bacteria that can be found in various parts of our body, including the genital and digestive systems. Eating yogurt may help you maintain a healthy and balanced vaginal pH.
Implement Some Lifestyle Changes
In your effort to maintain a healthy vaginal pH, a few lifestyle changes may help. Some recommendations include eating a healthier or more well-balanced diet, staying well hydrated, minimizing your sugar intake, and wearing underwear made of cotton or another breathable fabric.
That said, you can't always rely on these methods alone. "Although these home remedies can help, sometimes you need antibiotics or medical attention to help balance it," Cross says.
Take an Antibiotic Prescribed by Your Doctor
This may be confusing since we previously mentioned that antibiotics can disrupt your vaginal pH, but in some cases it may be necessary to take antibiotics to balance your vaginal pH. This is especially true if you have a vaginal infection such as bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis.
Remember, see a doctor before trying any of these methods. Afterward, if whatever you try doesn't seem to be working, it's likely time to head back to the doctor. "There may be something else going on that you may need additional help with," Cross reminds us.