What’s The Deal with Vaginal pH?
When vaginal pH is out of balance, a host of symptoms can appear—dryness, itching, irritation, unusual discharge, and peculiar odors. If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, you may be wondering how to restore vaginal pH and get back to normal.
How do you know if your vaginal pH is balanced, and how do you keep it that way?
When everything functions as normal, we often don't think about vaginal pH. After all, the vagina is good at managing itself. But sometimes, things can go awry down there. Luckily, with the right knowledge on how to restore vaginal pH, you can maintain a healthy vagina.
Table of contents
- What is vaginal pH?
- What is a healthy pH?
- What causes changes in pH?
- Symptoms of an imbalance
- How does menopause affect vaginal ph?
- How to prevent an imbalance
- How to restore vaginal pH
What is vaginal pH?
To clearly understand what vaginal pH means, we need to know the meaning of pH. In general, pH stands for potential hydrogen.
It measures how acidic or basic (alkaline) a liquid is, from a scale of 14 to 0. A pH below 7 indicates acidity, while those above 7 indicate alkalinity. A liquid like water with a pH of 7 is considered completely neutral.
Vaginal fluid also has a pH level. When it becomes too acidic or alkaline, it can indicate something is off balance with your body.
Your vaginal pH can be thrown off due to a number of reasons—menstruation, bacteria from your gut, and external irritants like lube, semen, and tampons.
What is a healthy pH?
Your body has a healthy pH level between 7.35 and 7.45. This pH balance keeps everything running in working order.
However, the vagina is more acidic than the rest of your body, with a standard pH between 3.8 and 4.5. Your vagina has its own microbiome with an abundance of different beneficial bacteria.
The higher pH comes from a specific bacteria known as Lactobacilli. This good bacteria is crucial for warding off offenders by producing a healthy level of hydrogen peroxide and lactic acid.
If your vaginal pH shoots above the 4.5 level, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for not-so-great bacteria and fungi. This change can lead to a host of uncomfortable issues that may require an appointment with a healthcare provider.
What causes changes in vaginal pH?
Though the vagina is self-regulating, small changes in our body can throw our pH off-kilter. Healthy pH levels can fluctuate due to changes caused by:
- Certain medications
- Bacterial vaginosis
When your vaginal pH is left unchecked, it can also cause infections like bacterial vaginosis, an overgrowth of bacteria that can cause inflammation, odor, itching, and more.
Symptoms of an imbalance
The most common symptoms of a pH imbalance include:
- A burning sensation during sexual intercourse or urination
- Itching and discomfort around the vulva and vagina
- An unusual odor that is often described as "fishy"
- A green, yellow, or gray discharge
- Thick or chunky discharge texture
High pH levels may lead to vaginitis, which is a catch-all term for inflammation, irritation, or infection of the vaginal area. Various disorders can be the reason for vaginitis from bacterial vaginosis to yeast infections and STIs.
If you notice changes in the vagina like itching, burning, irritation, unusual discharge, and strange odors, pH changes may be to blame. However, an infection can cause an imbalance and subsequent symptoms.
It is best to eliminate those before trying to restore vaginal pH. A pH imbalance often signals that something is off down there—it could be normal changes that happen as you age or an infection. Until you identify and treat the main cause, it will likely not go away.
How does menopause affect vaginal ph?
Menopause may also cause pH imbalances. Estrogen levels drop during menopause, which can cause vaginal pH to rise above 4.5. This rise alone won’t cause irritation and other symptoms of vaginal infection. But the increase can change the vaginal microbiome, which alters your natural network of healthy bacteria.
Talk with your healthcare provider about supporting healthy estrogen levels during menopause.
How to test your vaginal pH
You can test your vaginal pH at home with a test kit. You can buy a test kit from your local pharmacy or online through Amazon, Stix, and dozens of other companies.
If you choose this option, the test usually comes with a paper strip. You’ll place the paper strip against your vaginal walls for a few seconds. Then, assess your pH levels using a color chart.
Most test kits come with an easy-to-read color chart that indicates your pH level. After a few seconds, you’ll compare the color on your pH paper with the chart to determine your vaginal pH.
Before performing the test, you must read the manufacturer's instructions carefully to avoid making mistakes or getting the wrong value. They should also include recommendations on the best time to test your pH levels.
For instance, they may recommend not to test after sex or during your period as it could impact accurate results. At-home vaginal pH tests are similar to what a doctor uses in the office, but you may want to schedule a visit depending on your at-home results.
How to prevent vaginal pH imbalance
The vagina is pretty incredible and does an excellent job at keeping things in working order down there. However, specific lifestyle changes may disrupt a healthy pH balance.
You can take certain steps to prevent a vaginal pH imbalance, such as:
- Eating a healthy diet chock full of whole fresh foods
- Reducing your intake of added sugar, caffeine, and alcohol
- Getting plenty of exercise daily and sufficient sleep
- Addressing stress and finding ways to manage it
How to restore vaginal pH
Even with preventative measures, you may experience a vaginal pH imbalance. You can try some of these natural remedies to restore your vaginal pH at home. However, it is always recommended to talk to your doctors, especially if symptoms persist for several days.
1. Take probiotics
Probiotics are good bacteria—and sometimes yeast—that keep you healthy. They have been said to promote gut health. Some studies have also found that they help reduce elevated pH levels.
Probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods like:
- Miso soup
- Sourdough bread
Probiotic supplements are also an excellent source of Lactobacilli, the good bacteria that are found in your gut and vagina. Your doctor may suggest oral supplements if you are not getting enough probiotics from your diet.
Some companies offer vaginal probiotics, but studies haven’t proven their effectiveness in balancing pH levels. Also, if an infection is the cause of your imbalance, probiotics aren’t likely to help.
2. Use unscented, pH-balanced products
Avoid harmful chemicals that can irritate you like perfumes, douches, and scented soaps. Using these products for internal cleansing can irritate the area, disrupt normal vaginal pH, and cause infections. For instance, douching is closely linked with BV and other inflammatory infections.
It can also push the bad bacteria to the ovaries through the uterus and fallopian tube, leading to severe infections like pelvic inflammatory disease. It would be best to use only clean water and mild soap to wash the outer area when taking a bath.
When choosing soaps and intimate care, make sure to use pH-balanced products to support vaginal health.
3. Invest in breathable, cotton underwear
The type of underwear you use can affect your vaginal health in several ways. For instance, synthetic fabrics trap moisture and sweat allowing yeast and bacteria to grow. To keep your vaginal pH balance at a healthy range, and reduce the risk of vaginal and urinary tract infections, consider the following:
- Wear underwear with breathable and absorbent fabric, like cotton
- Change your underwear frequently, especially when you feel moisture buildup or irritation
- Wash your underwear with mild and hypoallergenic detergent
- Consider sleeping without underwear to avoid moisture buildup
4. Use condoms
Studies show that high exposure to semen can increase the risk of BV. Semen pH level ranges between 7.1 and 8, so having unprotected intercourse may raise the pH of the vagina.
To avoid exposing your vagina to this, you can use barriers such as condoms during sex. Doing this also protects you from unplanned pregnancies and reduces the risk of sexually transmitted infections.
5. Get antibiotics
If all else fails, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. A vaginal pH imbalance can signify an infection like BV, candidiasis, STIs, and more. In this case, natural remedies to restore vaginal pH won't work.
The type of antibiotic your physician prescribes depends on the infection. For example, if your pH imbalance is caused by bacterial vaginosis, a doctor may prescribe Metronidazole, a common oral antibiotic. In most cases, you’ll take an antibiotic for a full 7 to 14 days until the prescription is gone and symptoms clear.
6. Test hormone levels
If infections are eliminated as the cause, your vaginal pH could be off due to menopause. More specifically, it could be the result of the estrogen changes that menopause causes. Your doctor can test your hormone levels and check your menopause symptoms with you to determine what is happening. To restore your pH to normal levels, they may suggest hormone therapy or other treatment.
When it comes to how to restore vaginal pH, you first need to figure out what is behind the imbalance. Also, remember, that some changes in your vagina are normal. After all, it has its own unique microbiome. So it’s important not to mess with nature if you aren’t sure what’s going on. If the recommended lifestyle changes don’t help restore order, talk with your doctor about other causes that may have thrown your pH out of whack.