Feeling that something is off with your vagina can be scary, whether you’re experiencing minor irritation or symptoms that can’t be ignored. Between yeast infections and STDs, there are a lot of things that can happen to this very important organ, and therefore a lot of reasons to get treatment if necessary. One measure of vaginal health that might be helpful in monitoring for infection is vaginal pH. To understand what vaginal pH is, how it plays a critical role in your vaginal health, and how to maintain a healthy balance, POPSUGAR spoke with two board-certified ob-gyns.
What Is Vaginal pH, and Why Does It Matter?
Your vaginal pH is a measure of how acidic or basic the vaginal environment is. It’s measured on the same pH scale of 1-14 you learned about in your science classes, with numbers below 7 representing an acidic environment, and numbers above 7 representing a basic, or non-acidic, environment. According to Anushka Magal, MD, an ob-gyn who practices in Atlanta, GA, a normal vaginal pH is acidic, between 3.8 and 4.5, and increases slightly after menopause.
You can also experience fluctuations in vaginal pH under a number of circumstances. “Your vaginal pH can change throughout your menstrual cycle, and is affected by your age, your vaginal hydration status, and sometimes even your diet,” adds Kate White, MD, vice chair of academics in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Boston Medical Center.
Your vaginal pH matters because it can affect the overall health of your vagina. “The acidity of the vagina helps protect against infection, because the acid kills harmful bacteria and fungi,” Dr. White tells POPSUGAR. “When the normal bacteria that produce the acid are reduced, the pH environment in the vagina gets out of balance, and you’re at increased risk of vaginal infections.” These include conditions like bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. If you’re pregnant, Dr. White cautioned that increased vaginal pH can lead to an infection that can cause preterm delivery.
Can You Test Your Vaginal pH Levels?
There are FDA-approved home tests that you can use to check your vaginal pH, but Dr. White doesn’t recommend them. While the tests can tell you if your vaginal pH is outside the normal range, an elevated pH doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an infection, and even if you do, the test can’t tell you what kind it is or what steps to take.
If you have symptoms, the best thing to do is make an appointment with your doctor, who can not only test your vaginal pH levels, but diagnose an infection and prescribe treatment if necessary. If unbalanced pH levels are something you’re worried about, it’s best to go straight to your doctor, rather than testing them at home. “If you’re feeling well, we wouldn’t recommend any action even if your pH levels were out of whack,” Dr. White explains.
Symptoms of Unbalanced pH Levels
According to Dr. Magal, people with an unbalanced vaginal pH may or may not have symptoms. However, signs of unbalanced vaginal pH can include itching, swelling, discomfort, irritation, odor, changes in vaginal discharge, and discomfort or pain during intercourse or urination.
“High vaginal pH can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection, or bacterial vaginosis, and can lead to discharge that smells fishy, is green or yellow, or frothy,” Dr. Magal says. “Low pH can be found with yeast infections, which can cause discharge that is thick, white, and clumpy.” If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s best to see a doctor who can help you figure out what’s going on down there.
How to Get Your Vaginal pH Balance Back to Normal
Healthy vaginal practices can help maintain or restore your vaginal pH. Dr. White recommends avoiding douching (even with baking soda or plain water), always using condoms, wearing loose, cotton clothing around your vagina when you can, and sleeping commando if possible. However, if you have a vaginal infection such as bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection, you may need medication to restore your pH. “Probiotics that target vaginal health can aid in restoring your vagina to its normal pH, especially once any infections have been treated,” Dr. Magal says.
While measures can be taken to restore and maintain your vaginal pH balance, it’s important to note that your body, for the most part, has you covered. “If you’re not having any symptoms, there’s nothing to worry about and your body will likely restore the pH balance on its own,” Dr. White says.