The female reproductive system consists of both internal and external parts. It has several important functions, including:
- releasing eggs, which can potentially be fertilized by sperm
- producing female sex hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen
- providing an environment for a fertilized egg to develop during pregnancy
- facilitating labor and childbirth
But what are the individual parts of the female reproductive system, and what do they do? Continue reading as we discuss these questions and more below.
Let’s explore each part of the female reproductive system in a little more detail.
The vulva is the name that’s given to the external parts of the female reproductive system. The vulva actually includes many different structures, such as the:
- Mons pubis: The mons pubis is a mound of tissue located on top of the pubic bones. It’s typically covered in pubic hair.
- Labia majora: The labia majora are folds of skin that are found below the mons pubis. They cover many other parts of the vulva.
- Labia minora: These are smaller folds of skin covering the vestibule of the vulva.
- Vestibule: This is the area that’s located between the labia minora. It contains the opening to the vagina and the urethra.
- Clitoris: Located at the top of the labia minora, the clitoris is very sensitive to stimulation.
- Bartholin’s glands: These are two small glands that are located on either side of the opening of the vagina.
- Skene’s glands: These glands are located in the vagina near the urethra. They may be part of the G-spot, and play a role in sexual arousal.
The opening of the vagina is found in the vestibule of the vulva. The vagina itself is a muscular tube that extends from this opening to the lower part of the uterus (cervix).
The opening of the vagina may be partially covered by a thin piece of tissue called the hymen. The hymen can be broken through things like sex, inserting a tampon, or physical activities like riding a bike.
The uterus is a muscular, pear-shaped organ that’s found in the pelvis. It’s made up of two major parts:
- Cervix: The cervix is the lower portion of the uterus. It connects the main body of the uterus with the vagina.
- Corpus (body): This is the larger, main portion of the uterus.
The fallopian tubes connect the uterus to the ovaries. One fallopian tube is associated with each ovary.
These are two oval-shaped organs that are located in your pelvis, on either side of your uterus. The ovaries are connected to the fallopian tubes, which in turn connect them to the uterus.
Now let’s examine the function of each of the different parts of the female reproductive system.
The main functions of the vulva are to:
- protect the internal parts of the female reproductive system (labia majora and minora)
- play a role in sexual arousal and stimulation (clitoris)
- facilitate sex, such as through providing lubrication (Bartholin’s glands) and cushioning (mons pubis)
Additionally, the female urethra is also located in the vulva. This is the opening through which urine is released.
The vagina has several functions, which can include:
- receiving a toy or erect penis during sex
- serving as the birth canal during childbirth
- allowing menstrual blood to pass out of your body during your period
The uterus is the female reproductive organ that receives the fertilized egg and supports its development during pregnancy. We’ll discuss the uterus in more detail below.
The fallopian tubes work to transport an egg from the ovaries to the uterus. Smooth muscle contractions and the rhythmic beating of small hair-like structures called cilia help to keep the egg moving toward the uterus. Fertilization often occurs in the fallopian tube.
The main function of the ovaries is to release eggs. When you’re born, your ovaries contain all the eggs you’ll release throughout your lifetime. Once a month, a mature egg is released from the ovaries in a process called ovulation.
The uterus is one of the predominant organs of the female reproductive system. It serves important functions during pregnancy and childbirth.
The interior membrane that lines the uterus is called the endometrium. The thickness of this lining can vary depending on the levels of various hormones throughout the menstrual cycle.
For example, during a woman’s cycle, increases in the hormones estrogen and progesterone cause the lining of the uterus to thicken. This helps to prepare the uterus to receive and nurture a fertilized egg during pregnancy.
If no fertilization occurs, the egg begins to break down. Levels of estrogen and progesterone also decrease. The egg passes from the body, along with the endometrium, during your period.
If sperm fertilizes an egg, the egg implants into the uterine lining and begins developing. During pregnancy, the uterus enlarges to many times its normal size. It’s estimated that the uterus can increase by
During childbirth, the uterus contracts. These contractions help to dilate the cervix and help with delivery of the baby.
Many different conditions can affect the female reproductive organs. We’ll explore some of the more common ones below.
A variety of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can affect the female reproductive organs, including:
These infections may not have any symptoms. However, in some cases, swelling, pain, and abnormal vaginal discharge may be present. Some infections, such as HPV and HSV, can cause lesions to occur on the genitals.
Many STIs can have potentially serious complications. These can include things like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), the development of cancer, or passing the infection to a child during childbirth.
Uterine fibroids happen when benign (noncancerous) growths occur on or in the uterus. These growths can vary in size. A woman may have only a single fibroid or may have several fibroids.
Fibroids don’t always cause symptoms. When they do, you may experience things like heavy bleeding during your period, pelvic pain, and frequent urination.
Most of the time, fibroids aren’t dangerous. However, sometimes they can cause complications such as anemia or infertility.
Endometriosis is when endometrium grows in places other than the inside of your uterus. It can affect the outside of the uterus, the ovaries and fallopian tubes, or other tissues in the pelvis.
The most common symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain. This pain may be chronic or it can occur during sex, during your period, or while going to the bathroom. Another common symptom is bleeding between periods.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a condition that affects your ovaries. It’s caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. Because of this, eggs may not develop properly or may not be released from the ovary.
Ovarian cysts and uterine polyps
Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled bumps that can develop on the ovaries and typically don’t cause symptoms unless they rupture or block blood flow to the ovaries. They will typically go away in a few months without treatment.
Uterine polyps are typically noncancerous lesions that can develop in the inner lining of the uterus. They often don’t cause symptoms, but you may experience:
- irregular bleeding
- heavy bleeding
- postmenopausal bleeding
- prolapse, where the polyp protrudes out of the uterus through the cervix
Cancer can affect almost every part of the female reproductive tract and can include:
The symptoms of each type of cancer can vary by the specific type of cancer. However, some signs to look out for can include abnormal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain or pressure, and changes in the skin of the vulva.
In women, the following things can cause infertility:
- conditions affecting ovulation, such as PCOS or premature ovarian insufficiency (POI)
- damage to the fallopian tubes due to STIs or scarring from a previous surgery
- uterine problems, such as fibroids or an abnormally shaped uterus
It’s a good rule of thumb to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss any questions or concerns you may have involving your reproductive health or fertility.
Additionally, some signs that it may be a good idea to call your doctor include:
- being under 35 and unable to get pregnant after a year of trying
- being 35 or older and being unable to get pregnant after 6 months of trying
- painful periods
- pain during sex
- abnormal vaginal bleeding, including heavy bleeding during your period, bleeding between periods, or bleeding after menopause
- unusual vaginal discharge, particularly if it has an abnormal color or smell
- redness, swelling, or discomfort of the vulva or vagina
- unexplained sores, lesions, or lumps around your vulva or vagina
- pain or pressure in your pelvis that feels different from your normal menstrual cramps
- symptoms of a urinary tract infection, such as frequent urination or a burning sensation when you urinate
The female reproductive system is made up of many parts. These parts function together to do many things, such as producing eggs and hormones, maintaining a pregnancy, and facilitating childbirth.
There are a variety of conditions that can affect the female reproductive organs, some of which can cause potentially serious complications. If you’re experiencing symptoms like pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, or unexplained lesions, make an appointment with your doctor.