Vaginal pH Balance: What’s Normal, and What’s Not?

Monitoring vaginal health is important for girls who have entered their teenage years, and all women. The pH of the vagina is one of the primary ways that gynecologists can determine if it is healthy. There are several ways that you can preemptively ensure that your vagina is healthy. Read on to learn more about how to maintaining a healthy pH in the vagina, and diagnosing and treating imbalances.

This post was originally published on 6/16/16, and has been updated to include more information about identifying a pH imbalance.

 

Vaginal Balance

There are several foods and healthcare products marketed to restore “normal vaginal balance”. This language implies that an unbalanced vagina can cause other issues, including infections, discomfort, odor, and vaginal discharge.

The pH scale runs from 0-14, and measures whether chemicals lean towards the acidic or basic end of the spectrum. Acids lie in the 0-6 range, with bases in the 8-14 range. Substances with a pH of 7 are neutral, meaning they are equally between those extremes.

What Is A Normal pH for the Vagina?

Under standard conditions, the pH of the vagina should be acidic, in the range of 4.0-4.5. This is because it is the perfect environment for many species of lactobacilli, which cause a fairly acidic pH.

During a menstrual period, however, the pH of the vagina can often change. Instead of being in the 4.0-4.5 range, the pH of the vagina can increase, because blood has a strictly maintained range of 7.4. So, the pH of the vagina often goes back down after menstruation, as the lactobacilli restore the acidity.

In most cases, the pH is an important factor — but it should be self-regulating, and not under a woman’s control.

What Causes the pH of the Vagina to Fluctuate?

Aside from a period, there are particular lifestyle choices, foods, and drinks that can disrupt the pH of the vagina.

  1. Excessive Douching: Because an unbalanced pH often creates a foul odor, many women believe that using a douche will have a cleansing effect, and address this problem. However, douching can have several negative effects, especially in excess. Douching eliminates the helpful bacteria that protect against diseases and infections, and allows harmful bacteria to grow.
  2. Intercourse: Semen has a pH that generally lies between 7.1 and 7.8. So, semen can impact the pH of the vagina, bringing it to a higher level than normal. This is not, however, to say that women should not have sex.
  3. Tampons: Tampons absorb blood, which, as mentioned above, has a pH that is much higher than the vagina. Consequently, tampons can increase the pH of the vagina, and may cause harmful bacteria to grow.
  4. Menopause and Breastfeeding: During menopause and breastfeeding, the level of estrogen in the body decreases. As a result, the pH of the vagina increases.
  5. Antibiotics: The purpose of antibiotics is to kill harmful bacteria in the body that is causing an infection, which may have nothing to do with the vagina. But, antibiotics may accidentally kill the helpful bacteria in the vagina. This can impact the vagina’s pH, and occasionally cause a yeast infection.

 

How Can You Identify an Imbalance in the Vaginal pH?

There are a few signs that can indicate the vaginal pH is out of balance. Before attempting to self-diagnose or treat the issue, be sure to visit or contact your gynecologist:

  1. Foul Vaginal Odor: Under normal conditions, the vagina should not have a smell. This odor may be caused by an infection. So, be sure to take note of this, and contact your healthcare provider.
  2. Vaginal Discharge (especially white, gray or green): Some vaginal discharge is a normal sign of the vagina self-cleaning. However, other colors– like a white, green or gray discharge– can indicate the presence of various diseases. White discharge often points to a yeast infection, gray to bacterial vaginosis, and yellow to gonorrhea.
  3. Vaginal Itching: This can be an indication that there is an infection. And, vaginal itching can sometimes resurge after eliminating an infection.
  4. Burning Sensation While Urinating: This burning sensation often accompanies itching or discharge. Burning while urinating can also be a symptom of a yeast infection.

 

Addressing pH Imbalance in the Vagina

Acidic Diets Are Generally Ineffective

When attempting to cure a vaginal pH imbalance through foods, most women focus on keeping their diet acidic, with probiotics like yogurt. However, this approach is not always effective. These foods enter the GI tract, where they’re broken down into essential nutrients. The acid they contain is mostly neutralized, with some traveling through the intestines. It may be helpful for people with intestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, irregularity, or other similar conditions. Only a tiny amount of acid from your diet may wind up in the bloodstream, but it is immediately buffered by the blood’s higher pH of 7.4. These foods may be helpful in a preventative sense, but not in curing health issues. Ultimately, it’ll be helpful for your stomach, but none of this will reach the vagina.

Probiotic and Acidic Creams

Rather than changing your diet, probiotic or acidic cream and gel products are generally more effective. These products are inserted directly into the vagina via applicators.

 

Contact a Gynecologist

If you notice a sign that your vaginal pH is higher or lower than it should be, then be sure to contact your gynecologist. The gynecologist can diagnose the issue and help you find the appropriate treatment. At Stony Brook Women’s Health, our staff is dedicated to providing prompt and thorough treatment for all patients.