What Affects Vaginal pH and How Do You Restore It?
Vaginal pH levels are crucial to maintaining a healthy environment and preventing bacteria growth. Vaginal pH balance is somewhere between 4 and 4.5. This is on the pH scale, which measures how alkaline versus acidic something is between numbers 1 and 14. So technically, vaginal pH balance is acidic, which we'll go into later.
But what are the symptoms of vaginal pH imbalance and what remedies are available to reduce them? The vagina is its own ecosystem. In this article, we'll go over external elements that may disrupt it and a few suggestions on how to balance vaginal pH.
Keep in mind that we are not doctors. The following is intended as educational. It is not medical advice. If you would like medical advice on a personal condition, please speak with your doctor.
What Is a Healthy or Normal Vaginal ph?
The median i.e. normal vaginal pH level for human women is 4.5 on the pH scale, according to research. As closer to 1 is acidic whereas closer to 14 is alkaline, a woman's nether regions are technically more acidic than basic. A higher number may permit bacteria, such as a yeast infection, to grow.
This Bacteria Maintains Healthy Acidity
What causes this acidity? The vagina's homeostasis — meaning balance — is due to a naturally-occurring bacteria called Lactobacilli. Lactobacilli produces lactic acid, which helps reduce the reproduction of other alkaline bacteria, according to the study, "Role of Lactobacilli and Lactoferrin in the Mucosal Cervicovaginal Defense."
This bacteria is critical to women's health. Not only may a lack of lactobacilli correlate with a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (BV) but it may protect women from sexually transmitted infections, according to the research cited above.
Yeast Infections and Bacterial Vaginosis
Women are often concerned about vaginal pH balance because they may be suffering from a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Though these conditions have similar symptoms and are both classified as vaginitis, they are not the same.
Bacterial Vaginosis is caused by an overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria, and a lack of Lactobacilli. A yeast infection is fungal and due to an overgrowth of Candida.
What do yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis have in common? They share 3 characteristics:
- They are both extremely commonplace, for one. BV affects women at rates between 20 and 50%, according to national data. The second most common type of vaginal infection, yeast infections are responsible for 1.4 million doctor visits annually in the U.S. alone, according to government-cited records.
- Both bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections result from vaginal pH balance issues. Both bacteria and fungal overgrowths are due in part to a lack of Lactobacilli.
- These two uncomfortable conditions share several symptoms of including vaginal discharge and itchiness. However, vaginal discharge tends to be thinner and greyer for BV and has more of a cottage cheese consistency for yeast infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bacterial Vaginosis is often considered more serious than a yeast infection. It may require a visit to the doctor and prescription medication. By contrast, there are over-the-counter medications for yeast infections. If you are worried about either of these conditions, please speak with your doctor.
What Is pH?
So, we understand what vaginal pH balance is and what happens without it. But what is pH exactly and how do you test it?
pH, which stands for potential hydrogen, is a scale from 14 to 0 that measures how acidic or alkaline a liquid is. A glass of water would be at a 7, which means that it's completely neutral. Battery acid has a pH of zero, whereas, bleach is over 13. It is determined by the number of hydrogen atoms, hence its name.
Not all acidity levels within the body are the same. Blood is typically more alkaline than the vagina, at over 7. By contrast to vaginal pH levels, semen is more basic than acidic at 7.2-8.2, according to research. Maintaining health more broadly means maintaining the appropriate acidity vs alkaline levels within different parts of the body.
Vaginal pH Test Strips
Similar to how you would test a liquid's acidity in science class, vaginal pH test strips exist and can be purchased at a pharmacy or online. These may be used as a tool to determine where it's acidic levels are out of balance. They're used by placing the strip against the wall of the vagina for a specific amount of time.
Keep in mind that factors such as menstruation and intercourse may affect test results. It is best to read the instructions first.
Though a test may provide accurate information about acidity/alkaline levels, it cannot diagnose a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. It is best to speak with a doctor if you are worried about these conditions, A doctor can give you a vaginal pH test, too.
Additionally, just because a test does not pick up anything out of the ordinary does not mean that a person does not have an infection. These may occur without regular symptoms, too.
4 Vaginal pH Imbalance Symptoms
Aside from taking a test, how do you tell whether the vagina's acidity is out of wack? The only way to have a proper diagnosis is to go to the doctor. Here are a few signs that may indicate an imbalance:
- A change in color or amount of vaginal discharge.
- A change in the smell. Sometimes, the smell may be described as "fishy."
- Itching or discomfort.
- Burning during urination.
Not all infections will produce these symptoms. Additionally, some amount of discharge is normal for many women and does not indicate underlying health issues. Changes in discharge color, amount or smell may indicate an imbalance. If you have any questions about your discharge, speak with a doctor.
9 Things That May Disrupt Vaginal pH Balance
There are many things that may contribute to a pH imbalance, including:
- Unprotected sex
Avoid Douching to Restore Healthy Vaginal pH
Douching, which means cleaning or rinsing the vagina with water, soap or another liquid, is extremely common in the United States -- and one of the main interferents in vaginal pH balance. According to the Office on Women's Health, one in five women between the ages of 15 and 44 douche, despite potential risks including:
- Pregnancy difficulties
- Vaginal infections
- Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
- Cervical cancer
Douching has been linked with an overgrowth of a variety of bacteria that are known to cause infection (see the previous citation). This is because it reduces the number of Lactobacilli, the bacteria responsible for maintaining healthy acidity — and keeping unwanted bacteria levels down.
Unprotected Sex and Vaginal pH
Semen is alkaline by nature. This means that having unprotected sex may affect the acidic nature of the vagina. In fact, during intercourse, the vaginal pH levels may rise to protect the sperm as it travels towards the egg.
Suggested Article: Check out these period sex tips for beginners.
Menstruation & Tampon Use
Remember how we said that menstrual blood is more alkaline than the vagina? It would only make sense, then, that balancing vaginal pH may become more complex while menstruation.
Tampons may also increase vaginal pH unnaturally. This is because tampons soak up any type of liquid — including the good bacteria that create a healthy ecosystem down there. In addition to dryness and chafing, tampon use may cause vaginal pH imbalance. And studies show that "vaginal pH balancing" tampons have zero effect.
For that reason and many others, women use a menstrual cup. Since a period cup collects, rather than soaks up, fluid, it helps the vagina remain a balanced ecosystem, no matter the time of the month.
Antibiotics May Affect pH
Another big culprit when it comes to alkaline imbalance is antibiotics. By nature, antibiotics kill bacteria. This may mean killing off good bacteria, such as Lactobacilli.
Clothing & Hygiene
Tight clothing that doesn't breathe may also affect vaginal pH levels. This is because it may foster unwanted bacteria growth. In addition to clothing, hygiene may play an important role. Wiping from front to back, for instance, is a great way to prevent unwanted bacteria, as is cleaning (and not sharing) sex toys.
Menopause Vaginal pH
Much like how long a period lasts, vaginal pH balance is not consistent for the duration of a woman's life. This may be due to a change in hormonal levels, such as estrogen. One study found that women going through menopause had elevated vaginal pH levels compared to fertile women.
UTIs & Acidity
Having an imbalanced vagina pH may increase someone's chances of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Note that having high vaginal pH does not cause a UTI or visa versa. Additionally, struggling to restore vaginal pH and dealing with UTIs is more likely during perimenopause or menopause due to the lowering of estrogen levels.
6 Ways to Restore Vaginal pH Balance
Millions of women struggle with restoring normal vagina pH annually. The best way to maintain a healthy vaginal pH is to take preventative measures and regularly see your doctor.
Practice Safe Sex
Avoid semen, which is more alkaline than the vagina. This means using a condom during intercourse and changing that condom after each use. Keep in mind that not all types of birth control prevent STI transmission.
Take Probiotics & Eat Yogurt for Vaginal pH Balance
Probiotics are becoming an increasingly popular supplement for a reason: They may help restore natural bacteria balance. That helps with balancing vaginal pH, too. Keep in mind that some types of yogurt also have that beneficial bacteria. Speak with your gynecologist for specific suggestions.
Douching is a bad idea. It can even make smells and irritation worse over time. The best way to balance vaginal pH is to avoid harsh soaps or even rinsing out the vagina. Keep in mind that a woman's reproductive organs are self-cleaning. It is also supposed to have specific kinds of bacteria.
If you are experiencing smelliness or discomfort, don't douche: See your doctor, instead.
If someone struggles with yeast infections, it may be best to avoid tight-fitting clothing for too long and regularly replace underwear. This also means doing things that make sense, like changing tampons or pads regularly or switching to a menstrual cup.
See Your Gynecologist Regularly
The best way to address any medical question is to talk to your doctor. This means making regular appointments, not just making an emergency visit. Having a gynecologist you can trust and speak with regularly is the best way to stay on top of your health.
Additionally, if you are concerned that you have a bacterial condition or need another form of medical attention, they can prescribe the right medication.
How to Balance Vaginal pH Day-to-Day
Many people struggle with discomfort down there, but there is a lot you can do in addition to going to the doctor. Avoiding douching and unprotected sex — as well as practicing good hygiene and taking your probiotics — is a great place for everyone to start.