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Hymen: What It Is and How It Changes Throughout Your Life

The hymen is a fold of skin or membrane with no biological function. Lots of people have questions about it. We’ve got the answers to all of your questions about what a hymen is, where it’s located, and what it looks like.

The hymen is a thin and stretchy layer of tissue located below the opening of the vagina. The word “hymen” comes from the Greek word for “membrane.” Not every girl is born with a hymen, and the shape and size are always slightly different and typically change over time. The hymen may partially cover the opening of your vagina, or in rare cases, it may entirely block the opening, which may require surgery.

Although the hymen has no known biological purpose, there are many myths and incorrect beliefs about what it means if your hymen covers your vaginal opening. Some cultures believe that your hymen determines if you’ve had sex before, but that’s not true. Let’s look at the hymen in more detail to understand its anatomy and forms.

There are many parts of the vagina, including the hymen. The vulva is shaped like an oval, pointing to the front and back of the pelvis. The top end of your vulva points toward your public bone, and the bottom end points toward your anus. Your hymen is located toward the bottom side of the opening of your vagina. The hymen can also be called a hymenal ring if it encircles the outer walls of the vaginal opening.

Hymens can have many shapes and forms. If the hymen is intact, it may look like a thin disc covering the opening of the vagina or a doughnut-shaped ring around the vagina (hymenal ring). If the hymen isn’t fully covering the vaginal opening, it may look like a crescent or half-moon. Some hymens have small perforations or multiple openings. The hymen might also have skin tags (called hymenal tags), ridges, or notches called hymenal caruncles.

The hymen is mostly made up of elastic-like tissue that can move and stretch as the skin around the vagina moves. The section of the hymen that’s attached to the vulva is slightly thicker or denser than the flap or fold of membrane that moves freely from the surface of the skin. The free-moving section of the membrane doesn’t contain any nerve fibers, muscles, or blood cells, so it’s unlikely to bleed or hurt very much even if it’s torn.

Just as hymens come in many shapes and sizes, their appearance and thickness can also change as we get older, typically as a result of puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. The hymen can also rupture from vigorous activities, using tampons, or with sexual intercourse. However, a ruptured hymen won’t always cause pain or bleeding.

Here are some of the ways your hymen can change shape.

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When babies are in utero, the vagina develops as a solid tube. As the fetus develops, the inner part of the vaginal tube dissolves and becomes hollow. When the vaginal opening extends, the remnants of the tube’s membranes protrude out the bottom and form the hymen. 

The hymen of a newborn baby is quite thick and can rupture naturally within the first few days of birth. Because of hormones during pregnancy, the hymen remains thick and may protrude for the first two to four years of a child’s life. By age four, the hymen usually becomes thinner and smoother. 

The hymen can take several possible shapes at birth. 

  • A cribriform hymen is a hymen that is perforated with many small holes. This hymen anomaly can be corrected with minor surgery.
  • An imperforate hymen is a hymen that completely covers the vaginal opening. Imperforate hymens aren’t very common, affecting between 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 10,000 girls. Imperforate hymens can block the flow of vaginal discharge and menstrual blood. Once detected, a doctor may recommend minor surgery to allow the vagina to function normally.
  • A microperforate hymen is like an imperforate hymen but with a small hole in it. The hole might allow for normal vaginal discharge, but it may cause longer periods because blood isn’t exiting the vagina at a normal rate. It might be painful or impossible to insert a tampon if you have a microperforate hymen because it can’t fit through the small hole. A microperforate hymen may resolve on its own, or a doctor might recommend minor surgery to correct it. 
  • Septate hymens have extra tissue that runs vertically or horizontally across the normal area of the hymen, like a string connecting two sides of the vagina. This shape of hymen is likely to tear during sex, which can cause some pain, light bleeding, or discomfort.

Hymen abnormalities don’t cause any long-term health effects, but they can cause some discomfort, pelvic pain, or bleeding, especially if you’re menstruating or trying to have sex. Typically, doctors will examine a baby’s hymen when they’re born and make any medical recommendations to correct any issues. As you get older, if the shape of your hymen prevents normal menstruation, your doctor may recommend a minor surgical procedure called a hymenectomy to remove excess tissue. Once corrected, the vagina will function normally.

As long as your hymen isn’t causing physical pain or preventing you from menstruating or using tampons, there’s no need to change the shape of your hymen.

There is a myth that a broken or torn hymen means that a woman has lost her virginity. This myth may have roots in the meaning of the word itself. “Hymenaios” is the name of the Greek god of marriage, and some cultures believe a woman shouldn’t have sex until she’s married. 

Some of these cultures believe it’s possible to detect whether someone has had sex by checking to see if their hymen is intact or if they bleed when they consummate their marriage. There is no evidence that sexual intercourse changes the hymen. It’s also true that not everyone will bleed the first time they have sex. Some hymens are more elastic than others, so having sex for the first time might not rupture it.

As you go through puberty and become an adolescent, your hymen becomes larger and more elastic. It’s unlikely that your hymen would change permanently with sexual intercourse or penetration by a small item like a tampon or a finger. However, you can potentially break the hymen. When a hymen does break, it doesn’t usually cause pain, and it won’t always bleed.

The hymen can change shape during pregnancy and vaginal childbirth. During pregnancy, the hymen becomes thick as it fills with glycogen. During vaginal childbirth, the hymenal tissue can sometimes tear, either by stretching to allow for the head of the baby to pass through or with an episiotomy (when the doctor manually cuts the tissue for a larger opening for the baby). 

After childbirth, the hymen may develop hymenal caruncles, which are ridges, extra skin, or small growths. Women with existing hymenal tags might find that their tags disappear after a vaginal delivery.

The hymen is a natural part of the vagina. It can be shaped like a ring encircling the vaginal opening, or it can fully or partially cover the vaginal opening. Normal hymenal tissue serves no anatomical or biological function. If it’s covering the opening to the vagina, a doctor may recommend a hymenectomy to correct it. 

The shape or size of the hymen is different for every person, and not everyone will bleed, feel pain, or rupture their hymen when they have sexual intercourse for the first time.