How Condoms Can Help Maintain Vaginal Health

How Condoms Can Help Maintain Vaginal Health

When we think of our health, it isn’t the vagina that automatically springs to mind. It’s usually the major organs, heart, lungs and so on, or the state of our blood and whether we’re at risk of clots. Or brain tumours, there’s another one that lots of people worry about. But that doesn’t mean that other aspects of physical health should be far from our minds, including the vagina. It’s well known as having a self-cleaning mechanism (for want of a better word!), but what people often don’t realise is that it also has a delicate ecosystem in place called a microbiome, in which there are microsystems in place to maintain this ecosystem and therefore vaginal health.

Taking care of our general sexual health is very important, as we all know. There are endless information sheets, websites and books telling us exactly what will happen if we get lax about it at all; there infections to catch, more serious sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies to avoid. Microbiomes as a concept might seem confusing and best left to the doctors, but if we break it down it’s quite straightforward and not so difficult.

A vaginal microbiome is specific to the microorganisms within the vagina, unlike ones in the rest of the body which are more free-flowing. The vagina keeps these ones firmly to itself and it plays an important part. These are the first line of defence against vaginal infections, such as bacterial vaginosis (more on that in a minute) and general fungal infections. It’s changes in the microbiome which can lead to these, plus it means that you have a greater susceptibility to other STIs. Apart from this, keeping the vaginal microbiome healthy is key to wider general health and mental wellbeing. Plus, it directly affects enjoyment of sex – and who doesn’t want to maximise that? General good nutrition is important here for the same reasons and using condoms as well promotes a happy and healthy sex life. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) as mentioned above is a vaginal infection – but it isn’t a sexually transmitted one. It can develop if the microorganisms get disrupted and the signs to look out for are increased thick, white discharge and an unpleasant, fishy smell. Diagnosis is simple, just a quick swab from a sexual health nurse or doctor and it’s easily treated with a course of antibiotics. But wouldn’t it be great if you could reduce your chances of developing this significantly? Yes, is the answer.

How does the vaginal ecosystem get disrupted?

Not all women will experience this, but it’s a perfectly normal thing to happen and it’s very common that it does, so there’s little to worry about. Things that can cause disruption:

  • Hormonal changes. Hormones fluctuate in a woman’s body depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle, and age also plays a part. There’s not much that you can do about this.
  • Diet has long been recognised as a cause of intestinal disruption, and this may extend to affecting vaginal health as well.
  • It’s perhaps no surprise that sexual intercourse is also a big factor here. Studies have shown that the risks of disturbing the delicate microbiome balance in the vagina are increased with having multiple partners and how often you are swapping between them. If you find yourself doing this, the it’s best to have a thorough sexual health overhaul regularly.
  • Surprisingly – by smoking. If we didn’t already need another reason NOT to smoke, there has also been a link established between smoking and BV which proves that cigarettes have a negative effect on the vaginal microbiome.

Condoms are on your side.

You might be thinking how on earth does putting something artificial into the vagina help to keep it healthy? Here are the answers:

  • They protect the vagina from penile microorganisms – they can cause vaginal disruption when they’re put together with the vaginal ones.
  • BV can worsen with unprotected sex with a partner (it already makes sex less pleasant), which directly affects the delicate PH balance down there.
  • If you’re commonly affected by BV, or other fungal infections, condoms are perfect for minimising the amount of fresh bacteria that gets in, thereby minimising your chances of infection.
  • Multiple studies have shown that using a condom has a positive direct impact on the occurrence of BV.

But obviously you don’t have to be at risk of vaginal disruptions to use a condom, they are a vital tool in maintaining good health and helping you to enjoy sex to the maximum. There’s nothing like peace of mind to make sure that you’re enjoying it. If you’re looking for condoms specifically to protect the vagina, then it’s probably best to choose one designed for sensitivity, without added lube and artificial colours and flavours. There are plenty of choices out there so if you make that your starting point then you can add in your own lubricant, one that you know for sure doesn’t irritate the vagina.

If you feel that you need more information on the whys and wherefores of vaginal health, or any aspect of sexual health, then there’s plenty of advice available online, or a quick chat with a sexual health clinician could put your mind at ease.

Stuart Brown
Doctor of Sexual Health at the NHS Royal London Hospital & Relationship Expert. Columnist at An advocate of safe sex. Avid Arsenal fan.

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