pH describes the acidity or alkalinity of a specific substance and is assigned a number on a scale of 1 to 14. Zero is considered the most acidic, while 14 is the most alkaline. When a substance is labeled as neutral, that usually means it carries a pH level of 7.
A normal vaginal pH of 5 or lower is thought to fall within the healthy range. It registers below the neutral mark of 7 and qualifies as acidic. When vaginal pH is higher (or more alkaline), the chances of developing an infection increase. That’s because as vaginal pH rises, unhealthy bacteria and yeast multiply and affect the reproductive and urinary systems. Numerous factors come into play when vaginal pH balance is disrupted.
Vaginitis is a general term that refers to any form of vaginal inflammation, most commonly caused by infection. However, inflammation could also be related to changes in normal vaginal pH, resulting from injury, rough sex, or an allergic reaction. You may have an allergy to certain laundry detergents, soaps, lotions, perfumes, feminine hygiene products, latex condoms, or spermicidal agents.
Ordinarily, vaginal discharge has little or no odor and appears clear, milky, or blood-tinged depending on hormone levels and the current phase of your menstrual cycle. It could be a warning sign of vaginitis if your discharge:
- Gives off an unpleasant odor
- Alters in color (to yellow or green)
- Changes in texture (becoming thick and chunky)
Consult your doctor if you also observe symptoms like burning, itching, or irritation. And if abnormal discharge is accompanied by back pain, painful urination, severe abdominal discomfort, or fever, please seek immediate medical care.
Three different pathogens have been identified in most cases of vaginal infection: bacterial vaginosis, candida vaginitis, and trichomoniasis. Because their symptoms often overlap, these conditions are tough to diagnose without a medical examination.
High vaginal pH that leads to bacterial vaginosis (BV) or another infection might produce the following symptoms:
- Vaginal itching and burning
- Burning while peeing
- Thin and grey, white, or green discharge
- Foul-smelling or “fishy” discharge
Please note that, in some instances, women diagnosed with BV display none of the typical warning signs of infection.
The likelihood of contracting bacterial vaginosis increases under the following circumstances:
- When you engage in sex with new or multiple partners (particularly when it’s between two or more female partners). Though clinical studies link BV to sexual activity, its exact cause isn’t completely understood.
- The lactobacilli levels in your vaginal secretions are lower than they should be. This type of healthy bacteria helps maintain healthy vaginal pH, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Douching with a commercially-prepared or homemade cleansing fluid. It upsets normal vaginal pH and similarly leads to bacterial overgrowth. Note that the vagina has its own natural, self-cleaning process and douching is unnecessary.
Complications arising from bacterial vaginosis are pretty rare, but it can negatively affect vaginal pH and increase your vulnerability to:
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
The presence of BV makes you more susceptible to contracting infections through unprotected sex like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, hepatitis, and herpes.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Recent studies have connected BV to a higher incidence of infection in the uterus and fallopian tubes which produces scarring and possible infertility.
- Preterm births
When BV is contracted during pregnancy, it could potentially trigger premature delivery and low birth weight.
- Post-surgical complications
Serious medical issues may present themselves if you carry BV while undergoing gynecological surgery, such as a dilatation and curettage (D&C) or hysterectomy.
Vaginal pH is tested with a special type of paper called litmus paper, which changes color when exposed to an acidic or alkaline substance. Assuming normal vaginal pH, a piece of litmus paper would turn from blue to red when held against the vaginal wall for a few seconds, indicating its acidity.
Should you ever experience vaginal itching and burning, an unpleasant odor, or unusual discharge, it’s a good idea to test vaginal pH. Just keep in mind that these strips are not intended to check for infections or other conditions (e.g., HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis, or herpes).
It’s important to remember that vaginal pH irregularities do not necessarily indicate an infection. This can only be confirmed by a doctor through physical examination, microscopic observation of discharge, and perhaps a swab collection of bacterial or yeast samples.
If you test positive for high vaginal pH, please make an appointment with your doctor for further evaluation. There are currently no over-the-counter medications available to restore vaginal pH balance.
Alternatively, if you test negative for high vaginal pH, but symptoms persist, a vaginal infection may in fact be present. Double-check all fragrance-containing products you currently use and if the source of irritation cannot be identified, consult your doctor. They’ll be able to thoroughly assess vaginal health using medical and social history, physical exams, and lab tests.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, genital warts, hepatitis, and HIV are transmitted through blood and bodily fluids during unprotected sex. It’s crucial to use a condom every time you engage in sexual activity.
The female body features remarkable natural defenses to ward off infections caused by bacteria, yeast, and other pathogens. One way it controls vaginal pH is with probiotic lactobacillus or healthy bacteria.
Probiotic-rich products include yogurt, kefir, chia seeds, and cottage cheese. Don’t imagine a boring diet — there may be plenty of tasty dishes!
Follow these simple steps to ensure healthy vaginal pH:
- Take gentle baths regularly to cleanse the outside of your vagina. Avoid douching (or internal cleansing) as it only disrupts normal vaginal pH. Remember to use only clean water and mild soap as products containing fragrances could irritate the area.
- After urinating or bowel movement, always wipe from front to back (or rinse with warm water) to prevent the spread of unwanted bacteria.
- Do not shave your entire pubic area, which leads to irritation and increases your chances for infection.
- Never apply hair removal creams near the vaginal opening. They’re designed to burn the hair off and are much too harsh.
Any woman of childbearing age who is sexually active should get annual gynecological exams, which include a cervical screening and Pap test. Routine screenings catch abnormalities in cervical tissue when it’s more easily addressed. Early diagnosis and treatment of cervical, ovarian, uterine, or breast cancer can stack the odds in the patient’s favor.
The most effective approach to maintaining healthy vaginal pH is by taking all the necessary precautions outlined above and giving your vagina the TLC it deserves. If you can keep vaginal pH at a normal level, you’ll better protect yourself from potential infections and the unpleasant symptoms associated with them.