During pregnancy, you expect your body to go through many obvious changes, such as larger breasts and a growing abdomen. What you may not know is your vagina goes through changes, too. It’s important to understand how pregnancy affects vaginal health, even after you give birth.

Vaginal health during pregnancy

If you know what’s normal for your vagina during pregnancy, you’ll be more likely to head- off potential complications. Here are some ways your vagina is affected by pregnancy:

Increased vaginal discharge

An increase in vaginal discharge is one of the most noticeable vaginal changes during pregnancy. It’s caused by high levels of estrogen and progesterone. An increase in blood volume and blood flow can also contribute to increased vaginal discharge.

Pregnancy discharge should be thin, white, and milky. It may get heavier as your due date approaches. It shouldn’t smell bad, but it may have a mild odor that’s more noticeable than before. If vaginal discharge bothers you, try wearing unscented panty liners or mini pads.

Increased risk of vaginal infections

In some cases, increased vaginal discharge indicates infection. Vaginal infections are common during pregnancy, thanks in part to hormonal changes that alter your vagina’s pH-balance. Common vaginal infections during pregnancy include:

Yeast infections: During pregnancy, vaginal secretions contain more sugar, yeast’s meal of choice. A yeast infection won’t harm your unborn baby, but it’ll make your life uncomfortable. Symptoms of a yeast infection include vaginal itching, vaginal discharge that resembles cottage cheese and smells yeasty, and vaginal burning.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV): According to the American Pregnancy Association, 10 to 30 percent of pregnant women will get bacterial vaginosis. The condition is caused by an imbalance of good and bad vaginal bacteria. The main symptom of BV is a fishy-smelling, gray discharge. Untreated BV is linked to pre-term labor, low birth weight, and miscarriage.

Trichomoniasis: This infection is transmitted by having sex with an infected person. It may cause serious pregnancy complications, such as your water breaking too soon and premature birth. Symptoms of trichomoniasis include a foul-smelling, yellow-green discharge, vaginal itching and redness, and pain during urination and sex.

Increased vaginal swelling

To support your growing baby, your blood flow increases significantly during pregnancy. It’s not unusual for your labia and vagina to appear swollen and feel fuller. The swelling and increased blood flow may also increase your libido and make you feel easily aroused. Hormonal changes and increased blood flow may also cause your vagina and labia to darken and take on a bluish tint.

In some cases, vaginal swelling is caused by infection. If vaginal swelling is accompanied by redness, burning, and itching, contact your doctor.

Vulvar varicose veins

Your legs aren’t the only place varicose veins can appear during pregnancy. They may also happen in your vulvar and vaginal areas. Vulvar varicose veins are caused by an increase in blood volume, and a decrease in how fast your blood flows from your lower extremities.

Vulvar varicose veins may cause pressure, fullness, and discomfort in your vulva and vagina. You can help relieve symptoms by applying a cold compress, elevating your hips when lying down, and wearing a compression garment. Most vulvar varicose veins go away on their own within several weeks of giving birth.

Vaginal bleeding

Vaginal bleeding during your first trimester isn’t unusual. It may be due to the implantation of the fertilized egg to the lining of your uterus. It may also be caused by increased blood volume. In some cases, vaginal bleeding is a sign of miscarriage, especially if it’s accompanied by severe, menstrual-like cramping, and the passing of tissue through your vagina.

Vaginal bleeding during your second and third trimesters is concerning. You should seek emergency medical care if your vaginal bleeding is caused by:

  • placenta abruption (when the placenta peels away from the uterine lining)
  • premature opening of the cervix
  • preterm labor
  • uterine rupture

When labor begins, you may experience vaginal discharge mixed with pink mucous. This is normal and is called bloody show.

Vaginal health after giving birth

No matter what scenario your vagina goes through during birth, there’ll be some swelling, bruising, and pain afterwards. It may be hurt to urinate or have a bowel movement. For most women, these symptoms go away after a few weeks. It may take longer if your vagina tore during birth, or if the skin between your vagina and anus was cut to help get your baby out.

Vaginal bleeding is common for two to six weeks after giving birth. Heavy bleeding that’s bright red and may include blood clots is normal for the first 24 hours after delivery. After that, bleeding should gradually decrease. Even so, you may experience vaginal bleeding for up to six weeks.

Your vagina will probably feel wide and stretchy after giving birth. It usually regains much of its elasticity within six weeks. Kegel exercises and other pelvic floor exercises performed during and after pregnancy help increase vaginal tone and decrease your risk of organ prolapse into the vagina.

Women who are breastfeeding have lower estrogen levels and are more likely to experience dryness. Water-based lubricants and natural moisturizers may help relieve vaginal dryness symptoms, such as painful sex, vaginal itching, and vaginal burning.

The bottom line

Your vagina plays a key role in pregnancy and childbirth, so it deserves special attention. Here are some tips for keeping your vagina healthy during and after pregnancy:

  • Dry your vaginal area with a hair dryer on a low, cool setting after bathing or swimming.
  • Wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom.
  • Don’t douche or use scented sanitary pads or tampons.
  • Avoid feminine hygiene sprays or perfumed personal care products.
  • Wear looser clothing or underwear.
  • Eat yogurt regularly.
  • Reduce your sugar intake.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and get regular exercise.
  • Practice responsible sex.

Consult your doctor when in doubt about vaginal discharge or other vaginal concerns. Some vaginal symptoms may be a sign of a serious problem, so it’s best to be cautious.