Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, boosts your mood, and increases your energy. It also promotes sleep and reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Still, many women face a negative side effect of exercise called vaginal discomfort, also known as sports vagina. Keep reading to learn more about this rarely discussed condition and what you can do about it.

What is sports vagina?

Sports vagina isn’t an official medical condition. It’s a term for vaginal discomfort that occurs with exercise. Your vulval and vaginal areas produce sweat, which may lead to vaginal discomfort when you hit the gym, especially if you don’t wear proper clothing.

Sports vagina symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on the type of exercise, the intensity of exercise, and how often you work out. Symptoms may include:

  • vaginal itching
  • vaginal redness
  • vaginal irritation
  • vaginal chafing
  • strong vaginal odor

Infections caused by sports vagina

Sports vagina may cause a yeast infection, which is an overgrowth of the Candida fungus. Yeast thrives in warm, moist environments such as a sweaty vagina. Symptoms of a yeast infection may include:

  • a thick, white discharge that resembles cottage cheese
  • vaginal itching, which may be intense
  • vaginal burning, especially when in contact with urine
  • painful sex
  • vaginal redness

Most yeast infections won’t go away on their own. Treatment options include over-the-counter antifungal suppositories and creams, prescription vaginal antifungal medications, and prescription oral antifungal medications. Taking probiotics and eating probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt may help prevent fungal infections.

Another infection that thrives in warm, sweaty environments is bacterial vaginosis (BV). It’s caused when the balance of good and bad bacteria in your vagina gets out of whack. BV may cause a fishy vaginal odor and grey discharge. Not everyone with BV experiences symptoms.

Sometimes BV goes away without treatment, but persistent BV may be treated by prescription medications such as metronidazole or clindamycin.

Vestibulodynia

The vestibule is the area where your vulva joins your vagina. It’s a sensitive area that contains glands that produce healthy vaginal fluids. Vestibulodynia is persistent, unexplained pain in this area. The condition may occur without any visible signs, such as redness or inflammation. Exercise doesn’t cause the condition. However, if you have vestibulodynia, any exercise that puts pressure on the vulva and vagina may cause pain.

Applying A+D ointment or petroleum jelly to the affected area may help protect your skin and promote healing. Lidocaine gel and witch hazel may help relieve pain and make exercise more tolerable. Even so, you should avoid doing exercises that put pressure on your vulvar area until your symptoms are well-managed.

Exercise and pelvic organ prolapse

Organ prolapse occurs when the muscles in the pelvic area weaken and pelvic organs such as your bladder, uterus, and rectum fall out of place and press against your vagina. This creates a bulge in your vagina.

Exercises that strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, such as Kegel exercises, may help prevent a pelvic organ prolapse. But some exercises, such as weightlifting, jumping rope, jumping on a trampoline, intense abdominal work, running, and high-impact aerobics, may make a prolapse worse. If you have a prolapse, it may take some trial and error to determine which exercises won’t aggravate the condition.

Ways to prevent sports vagina

Many women don’t think about their vaginal health when they exercise — until something goes wrong. Take these steps to minimize or prevent vaginal discomfort during and after exercise:

Clean up: Don’t head home or run errands after your workout without hitting the locker room. If possible, take a shower. At the very least, wash your vaginal area and change sweat-soaked panties and pants.

Wear proper workout clothes: Tight yoga pants may look cute, but many aren’t breathable and cause friction during exercise. Wear cotton underwear, and choose looser workout clothes made from natural materials that repel moisture.

Apply protectant: It is no longer recommended to use talcum powder on your genitals. Instead, you can apply a thin layer of emollient, such as Calmoseptine, Vaseline or A+D ointment, before exercise.

Don’t ignore symptoms: A little vaginal itching or irritation after vigorous exercise isn’t unusual. If it persists, don’t wait for it to go away on its own. You may have an infection.

Healthy exercise habits

You can support your overall health and improve your exercise by:

  • staying well-hydrated before, during, and after exercise
  • practicing good hygiene
  • avoiding scented feminine care products and douching
  • getting an exercise buddy to keep you accountable
  • setting realistic goals and treating yourself when you achieve them
  • eating a healthy, well-balanced diet of lean meats and fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats
  • finding ways to manage stress such as journaling, meditation, and aromatherapy
  • getting enough sleep each night
  • developing an exercise regimen that works for you and includes cardio and strength training

The bottom line

If you regularly experience vaginal discomfort during exercise, it’s time to evaluate your workout habits. Take a look at your exercise wardrobe. Replace any tight clothing with looser outfits made of breathable fabrics. If you’re a fan of biking or indoor cycling, which puts pressure on your vagina, try something different to see if your condition improves. If vaginal irritation persists, you may have an infection or another condition that requires treatment. See your doctor for an evaluation.