Regular vaginal self-exams can help spot changes that may indicate a problem. But they’re still not a replacement for an annual gynecological checkup.
Performing a vaginal self-exam at home can help you familiarize yourself with your own body, as all vaginas are different. It can also help you identify changes and abnormalities.
Even though it’s difficult to tell if your vagina is “healthy” through a home self-exam, you can watch for signs like abnormal discharge, genital warts, or sores.
A self-exam shouldn’t replace a gynecologist visit, though. A gynecologist can check you for symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and perform a Pap smear test to screen for cervical cancer.
Here are the symptoms you can look out for and discuss with a gynecologist at your next appointment.
Everyone’s vagina will look slightly different as far as color, shape, and size. That’s why “healthy” may look slightly different for everyone. Before doing a self-exam, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the general anatomy.
Labia majora (outer lips)
The outer folds of the vulva are sometimes known as the “large lips.” They are large, fleshy folds of tissue. Their purpose is to protect and enclose the external genital organs. The labia majora may be covered in pubic hair, which usually grows in during puberty.
Labia minora (inner lips)
The labia minora, or small lips, are found just inside the labia majora. It can be small in size or up to 2 inches wide. It’s usually pink in color because of the rich supply of blood vessels in this area.
The opening of the vagina is located between the urethra and anus. This is where blood exits during menstruation and where a baby is delivered through during birth. It’s also where the penis enters during intercourse.
You may see the hymen, a thin membrane that stretches easily, surrounding the opening of the vagina.
The clitoris is a small protrusion, or nub, that’s located between the labia majora and upper end of the vagina. It’s extremely sensitive to the touch and the source of sexual stimulation for many women.
You’ll want to be aware of any changes to the vulva or inner vagina. If you see anything you’re concerned about or notice a new symptom, make an appointment with a gynecologist or healthcare provider.
Some common symptoms of STDs include:
- unusual discharge, which may have a strong or foul odor, or be yellow or green in color
- swelling around the vulva
- small red bumps
- open sores
If you notice any of these symptoms, report them to a doctor right away.
Sores, bumps, or spots
You may see or feel sores, bumps, or spots in or around the vaginal area. These may be painful or you may not feel them at all. Sores and lumps may be symptoms of an STD.
Causes of lumps, growths, or swelling could be due to a number of reasons, including skin tags, human papillomavirus (HPV), or a cyst. It’s important to report any new sores, bumps, or spots to a doctor right away.
To perform a self-exam at home, you may want to use the following:
- small flashlight
- gloves for your hands
- diagram of the vulva
Follow these steps when you’re ready to begin the self-exam:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or put on gloves. Remove your clothing below the waist.
- Prop the pillow up in front of a wall. Sit up with your back against the pillow, and bend your knees. Your feet should be near your buttocks. Spread your knees apart to start. Try to keep your pelvic muscles relaxed. This will help you stay comfortable.
- Hold the mirror out in front of your pelvic area. You may need to use the flashlight to see better.
- If this is your first time performing the exam, you may want to refer back to a diagram of the vulva. You can start to identify different areas and what they look like when you’re in different positions or sexually aroused. Examine the vulva for small cuts, sores, or lumps.
- Next, gently spread the vaginal lips with one hand, and hold the flashlight or mirror with the other. You can also prop the mirror up and shine light off of it if that’s easier to see.
- Gently insert one finger into your vagina. The inside may feel similar to the roof of your mouth. If you feel any sores or growths along the vaginal wall, see a doctor.
- Gently remove your finger and look at your vaginal discharge. If you notice an unusual color or foul odor, see a doctor.
- Look for any other swelling, lumps, or unusual changes. You can now close your knees and stand up.
Remember, the appearance of your vulva can change slightly throughout the month. If you notice any changes that you’re concerned about, bring them up at your next gynecological appointment.
When and how often to perform a self-exam
You can perform a self-exam as often as once a month. You don’t want to do the self-exam while you’re menstruating, though.
If you want to be consistent, you can set a date on the calendar based around your monthly cycle. For example, choose one day per month on the week following your expected period.
Watch for the following symptoms. You may notice them before or during a self-exam.
- irritation in and around the vagina
- abnormal discharge that has a foul odor
- discharge is yellow, green, or brown in color
You’ll want to report these symptoms to a doctor. They can do a pelvic exam or take a urine or blood sample to determine what’s causing your symptoms.
A vaginal self-exam is a smart way to get to know your body. You’ll be more familiar with what your vagina looks like and be able to identify obvious symptoms of a problem.
A self-exam isn’t a substitute for a yearly gynecological checkup, though. If something feels off, you can see a doctor sooner or more often as needed.