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The vagina

Picture of Human Vagina

The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal with a soft, flexible lining that provides lubrication and sensation. The vagina connects the uterus to the outside world. The vulva and labia form the entrance, and the cervix of the uterus protrudes into the vagina, forming the interior end.

The vagina receives the penis during sexual intercourse and also serves as a conduit for menstrual flow from the uterus. During childbirth the baby passes through the vagina (birth canal).

The hymen is a thin membrane of tissue that surrounds and narrows the vaginal opening. It may be torn or ruptured by sexual activity or by exercise.

Vagina conditions

  • Vaginitis. Inflammation of the vagina, commonly from a yeast infection or bacterial overgrowth. Itching, discharge and change of odour are typical symptoms.
  • Vaginismus. Involuntary spasm of the vaginal muscles during sexual intercourse. Emotional distress about sex or medical conditions can be responsible.
  • Vaginal warts. Genital warts may affect the vulva or the vagina. Treatments can remove genital warts, which are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Trichomoniasis. Infection of the vagina by a microscopic parasite called trichomonas. Trichomoniasis is transmitted by sex and is easily curable.
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV). A disruption in the balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina, often causing odour and discharge. Douching, or sex with a new partner, seem to cause BV.
  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV). The herpes virus can infect the vagina, causing small, painful, recurring blisters and ulcers. Having no noticeable symptoms is also common.
  • Gonorrhoea. This sexually transmitted bacterial infection often infects the cervix. Half the time there are no symptoms, but vaginal discharge and itching may occur.
  • Chlamydia. The bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis causes this sexually transmitted infection. Around 70-80% of women will not have symptoms, which may include vaginal discharge or pain in the vagina or abdomen.
  • Vaginal cancer. Cancer of the vagina is extremely rare. Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge are symptoms.
  • Vaginal prolapse. Due to weakened pelvic muscles (usually from childbirth), the rectum, uterus or bladder pushes on the vagina. In severe cases the vagina protrudes out of the body.

Vagina tests

  • Pelvic examination. Using a speculum, a doctor can examine the vulva, vagina and cervix. The strength of the pelvic muscles can also be tested.
  • Cervical screening test ( smear test). During a pelvic examination, a doctor or nurse takes cell samples from the cervix to screen for abnormal cervical cells.
  • Bacterial culture. A swab of the cervix and vagina during a pelvic examination may be cultured in a laboratory. This can identify bacterial infections.
  • Colposcopy. A microscope is used during a pelvic examination to examine closely the cervix. Colposcopy can help identify cancer or other problems.
  • Vaginal biopsy. In the rare case of a suspicious growth in the vagina, a small piece of tissue (biopsy) may be sent to check for cancer.

Vagina treatments

  • Antimicrobials. Antifungal drugs can treat yeast infections, and antibiotics can treat bacterial infections. Antiviral drugs treat infections by the herpes virus.
  • Wart treatments. A variety of methods can be used to remove vaginal warts, including freezing, chemicals, or using a laser.
  • Vaginal pessary. A small device is placed inside the vagina to keep in place prolapsing pelvic organs.
  • Pelvic floor exercises. Exercising the pelvic floor muscles (as when stopping your urine stream) may improve or prevent vaginal prolapse.
  • Oestrogen. The genital organs of women both inside and out respond to oestrogen. Oestrogen treatment may be useful to revitalise these structures in postmenopausal women.
  • Surgery. In rare cases of vaginal cancer, surgery is required to remove the tumour. Surgery may also treat vaginal prolapse.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 19, 2016

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