This female organ plays a central role in childbirth, menstruation, and sexual intercourse.
The vagina is a muscular tube that extends from a woman's vulva, the part of her genital area on the outside of her body, to her cervix, the lower part of the uterus — the "womb" in which a fetus grows during pregnancy.
In other words, the vagina essentially connects the uterus to the outside of the body.
A woman's vaginal opening is surrounded by the hymen, a thin membrane of tissue that can tear during sexual intercourse or exercise.
In adult women, the vagina typically measures about 3 to 5 inches long. It's lined with a mucous membrane.
The lining of the vagina contains folds and wrinkles during the reproductive years. Before puberty and after menopause, this lining is smooth.
Functions of the Vagina
The vagina plays a number of different roles in a woman's body.
During vaginal sexual intercourse, a man's penis is inserted into the vagina. The vagina serves as a passageway for a man's sperm to reach a woman's egg, which can result in pregnancy.
When a woman is aroused, the vagina expands, and its walls lubricate to reduce friction. The nerve endings near the entrance of the vagina may provide pleasure during sexual activity.
The vagina also acts as the route for delivering a baby — known as the birth canal — and for the exit of menstrual blood from the body.
Conditions Affecting the Vagina
Vaginal problems can impact many aspects of a woman's health.
Some common conditions affecting the vagina include:
Vaginal odor Any odor that comes from the vagina is termed "vaginal odor." A very strong smell that's accompanied by other symptoms may be an indication of a more serious issue.
Vaginal discharge A woman's body normally gets rid of fluid and old cells by excreting vaginal discharge. But if discharge is abnormal, it can be a sign of another problem.
Vaginal itching This itching, commonly referred to as vaginitis, can happen when the vagina becomes inflamed. A bacterial imbalance, certain infections, or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) may be the culprit.
Vaginal dryness Dryness happens when the tissues of the vagina aren't healthy and well lubricated. It can cause discomfort and lead to infection.
Vulvodynia This condition is characterized by unexplained chronic pain in the area around the opening of the vagina.
Imperforate hymen In this congenital disorder, the hymen completely covers and obstructs the vagina.
Vaginal prolapse This condition occurs when the uterus, bladder, rectum, urethra, small bowel, or vagina itself falls out of its normal position and pushes against an area of the vagina. It can lead to discomfort and sexual problems.
Bacterial vaginosis This common vaginal infection can be transmitted by sexual contact or caused by a bacterial imbalance.
Yeast infection This infection is commonly caused by the fungus Candida albicans.
Vaginal flatulence Trapped air is sometimes released from the vagina during certain activities, such as sexual intercourse or exercise.
Vaginal cysts These closed pockets of fluid are located on or under the vaginal lining and can occasionally become infected (filled with pus).
Vaginal cancer Symptoms of this extremely rare cancer include abnormal bleeding or discharge.
STIs Chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, and other infections can be spread by sexual contact. STIs can affect various aspects of vaginal health.
Vaginismus This condition is characterized by involuntary spasms of the muscles surrounding the vagina. It can cause pain and interfere with normal sexual activity.
Keeping Your Vagina Healthy
Some actions you can take to improve and protect your vaginal health include:
Do Kegel exercises These involve squeezing the muscles you use to stop urinating. Kegels can help tone your pelvic floor muscles.
Practice safe sex Using condoms can reduce your risk of developing STIs and other unwelcome vaginal conditions.
Get vaccinated Vaccines can protect you against certain infections, such as HPV and hepatitis B.
Limit alcohol and tobacco use These substances can impair sexual function and arousal.
Get regular exams Seeing your healthcare provider on a regular basis can help identify any potential problems.
Avoid douching and sprays Douching disrupts the vagina's pH levels, which can lead to bacterial infections. It's best to clean the outside of your vagina with non-irritating soap and water.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Vagina: What's normal, what's not; Mayo Clinic.
- Female Internal Genital Organs; Merck Manual.
- Vagina; MedlinePlus.
- Female Reproductive System; MedlinePlus.