Every substance’s chemistry falls somewhere on the pH scale between acidic and basic (alkaline). Different parts of your body have their own pH balances, including your vagina. Your vaginal pH level matters for infection prevention, healthy pregnancies, and hormonal changes.
What is pH?
The pH scale measures the acidity of a substance. It ranges from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic, 7 being neutral, and 14 being the most basic. For example, battery acid has a pH of 0, water has a pH of 7, and drain cleaner has a pH of 14.
The pH balance of different parts of your body is important for digestion, fighting off infection, and other functions. Your stomach is acidic, which helps it break down food and kill harmful bacteria. Other parts of your body are less acidic.
What is a Typical Vaginal pH Level?
The vagina’s pH level is about 3.8 to 4.5, which means it’s on the acidic side. Its acidity slightly decreases as you get older, with its pH level rising closer to 5.
Your vagina naturally is home to different types of healthy, acid-producing bacteria. To prevent dryness and maintain a chemical balance, your vagina also regularly produces fluid. That fluid contains acids.
Your vagina’s acidity helps protect it against germs. Acid kills harmful bacteria, parasites, and fungi.
What Causes Unbalanced Vaginal pH?
Your vaginal pH can change based on existing health conditions, lifestyle, and other factors.
Your menstrual cycle. Where you are in your menstrual cycle, whether you’ve gone through menopause, and if you’re pregnant can all affect your vaginal pH level.
Medication.Antibiotic medication can raise your vaginal pH because it kills all bacteria, both good and bad. Birth control pills can also change vaginal pH for some people, which potentially leads to infections.
Douching. Douching is a method of cleaning the inside of the vagina. It’s different from washing the outside of your vaginal area with soap and water. Douching usually involves squirting a pre-packaged fluid mixture into your vagina with a tube or other tool. This process can raise your vaginal pH.
Lubricants. Lubricants reduce dryness in the vaginal area during sex. Some lubricant products have a pH higher than 4.5. This higher pH can kill healthy bacteria and lead to an infection.
Symptoms of Unbalanced Vaginal pH
An unbalanced vaginal pH level can go along with bacterial infections and other health issues. Your vaginal pH balance might be off if you’re experiencing common symptoms of an infection. Some of these symptoms include:
- Strong, fish-like smell coming from your vagina
- Grey, green, or foamy vaginal discharge
- Itching around the vagina
- Swelling and irritation around the vagina
- Pain or burning feeling in the vagina during sex
- Burning sensation while urinating
These are symptoms of common infections like bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or yeast infections. Most of these infections fall under the larger category of vaginitis. Vaginitis is any inflammation or irritation of the vagina and surrounding area.
How to Maintain Vaginal pH Balance
You can take simple steps to maintain a healthy vaginal pH level and avoid infections.
Use condoms during sex. Like the vagina, the penis has its own bacteria. Unprotected sex can lead to infections if these bacteria come in contact with your vaginal environment. Using a condom keeps bacteria and other germs on the surface of the penis separate from your vaginal area.
Avoid douching. Wash the area around your vagina with soap and water instead.
Change your diet. Many types of yogurts are rich in the same bacteria that live in your vagina. Avoiding sugary, processed foods like white bread and rice can help prevent yeast infections.
Wear the right clothing. Tight clothing can reduce air flow to your vagina and lead to vaginitis. Wear cotton underwear, looser-fitting pants, and tights with a cotton patch around your vaginal area.
What to Do if Your Vaginal pH is Unbalanced
Unbalanced vaginal pH can lead to more serious illness. Untreated vaginitis raises your risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).
If you’re experiencing symptoms of unbalanced vaginal pH:
Take a pH test. You can purchase an at-home kit to test your vaginal pH. These kits come with special paper to insert into your vagina for a short time, and a color chart. The paper changes color based on your vaginal pH. Different pH ranges turn different colors.
The test won’t tell you what specific infection you may have. Your vaginal pH can also change even if you don’t have an infection.
Talk to your doctor. A doctor can diagnose any infections that could be linked to vaginal pH. They will ask about your medical history, your symptoms, and examine your vagina. The doctor can prescribe antibiotics and other treatments to ease your symptoms.