Healthy lives for young people
Vaginas & Vulvas

Get to know your vulva

Like every other part of your body, every vagina and vulva is different but worrying about what’s ‘normal’ is really common. Here, we run through some of the basics of how the vagina and vulva actually work.

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Anatomy of the vagina and vulva

labelled diagram of a vulva

We often refer to the external genital organs (the bits you can see) as the vagina, but this is actually called the vulva. The vagina is the muscular tube inside the body that leads from the cervix (the opening of the womb) to the vulva.

As part of your vulva you have two sets of labia – the outer labia which are covered in pubic hair and often fleshier and the inner labia which don’t have any pubic hair on them. The size of the labia can vary from person to person.

The area about the labia, where you have pubic hair, is known as the mons. Below this and at the top of your labia you will find the clitoris which looks like a small pea-shaped bump, with a hood of skin covering it. The sole purpose of the clitoris is to provide sexual pleasure. The clitoris is packed full of nerves, which means it can be extremely sensitive to touch.

Underneath this you will see small dot or slit, which is the opening of your urethra and where you wee from, and below that is the vaginal opening. This is where blood comes out during your period and is where you can insert tampons or cups during your period.

Have a look at your vulva with a hand held mirror. It’s an important and amazing part of your body and it is good to become familiar with it.

labelled diagram of a uterus

How it works during arousal

When you become aroused the blood flow to the vaginal walls increases and causes lubrication to make the vagina wet. The external genitals can also swell and inside the body, the vagina expands.

Getting closer to orgasm, the clitoris pulls back against the pubic bone, and as orgasm happens the sexual tension that has been built up is released in a short burst, the genital muscles contract and feel-good chemicals are released by your brain.

Sometimes penetrative sex can be painful and this could be for a number of reasons such as not enough lubrication in the vagina, the position, your emotions, or it could be cause by an infection. If you are worried speak to a doctor or nurse.

Hymens

The hymen – also sometimes called a corona – is a ring of thin skin which covers part of the opening of the vagina. It does not cover the vaginal opening completely so that it can allow menstrual blood out. When the hymen stretches it can feel uncomfortable or be a bit painful. The purpose of the hymen is not known and everyone’s hymen is different.

When you have sex for the first time there can sometimes be bleeding afterwards if the hymen tears quickly, but not always. The hymen can also break from using tampons and activities such as playing sport.

Find out more about having sex for the first time.

Washing your vagina and vulva

You should wash your vulva gently every day using mild unperfumed soap. This avoids upsetting the pH balance of the vagina which can lead to infection such as thrush or bacterial vaginosis. The vagina will clean itself inside your body through secretions.

Washing inside the vagina (also called douching) removes helpful bacteria and changes the acidity in the vagina, which can lead to the development of thrush or bacterial vaginosis. Douching should be  avoided for this reason . Scented wipes and vaginal deodorants can also disrupt the healthy balance of the vagina.

Conditions that affect the vagina

If your vaginal area is itchy or sore, or if you have changes to your discharge or notice that it smells, this could be a sign of an infection. Read more about whether you need to see a doctor here.

If you have had sex without a condom this could be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and you can find out more about getting an STI test. You may also need to think about emergency contraception.

Contraception in the vagina

If you are having sex you can use contraception to prevent pregnancy and some of those methods are inserted into the vagina. These include internal condoms, the vaginal ring and the IUD/IUS.

Find out more about all methods of contraception.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening (sometimes called a smear test) is a test which involves taking a small sample of cells from the cervix. This can detect early cell changes in the cervix, and whether there are any unhealthy cells that should be removed.

A doctor or nurse will use a small instrument called speculum to open the vagina so that the cervix can be seen, and a small brush is used to collect a sample of cells from the cervix for testing. Most people don’t find the test painful, but some women find the examination a bit embarrassing or uncomfortable.

Routine cervical screening begins at 25 and you can read more about cervical screening on the NHS website.

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