Vulvar Self-Examinations

Women need to regularly examine their genital areas, watching for changes and abnormalities.

In addition to performing regular breast self-exams, women should also perform monthly vulvar self-exams (examinations of the vulva, a woman’s external genitals). Women should examine their genitals in between menstrual periods, once a month. If a woman is no longer menstruating, she should set a date once a month for a vulvar self-exam.

Things like an unusual odor or discharge would probably be detected without a visual exam. The vulva has a distinctive smell, which is perfectly normal. An odor that is very strong, very unpleasant, or “fishy” might be a sign of an infection. It is normal for a woman’s vagina to produce some discharge. Normal vaginal discharge can be white or clear, and slippery or tacky, depending on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. It is also normal for a woman who is sexually aroused to feel wetness. Discharge that is yellow, green, brown, or very heavy might be a sign of an infection. If a woman notices any of these things, she should make an appointment with her health care provider right away.

A woman performing a vulvar self-exam may need to find a private place to do it. Her partner can also help in examining her genitals, if that is comfortable for her. Because it can be difficult for a woman to see all of her own genitals, it is often best if she performs her exam by standing, sitting, or squatting over a mirror. A complete vulvar self-exam includes the mons pubis (the mound of skin where the pubic hair grows), labia majora (outer lips of the vagina), labia minora (inner lips), clitoris (the small rounded structure just inside the top of the inner lips, which is the most sexually sensitive part of a woman’s body) and perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus).

Women should check for changes in appearance of the vulva, looking for skin becoming white or reddish in areas, and new freckles or moles. It is normal for the vulva to be slightly different colors from day to day (things like sexual arousal and exercise can cause the skin to flush or darken temporarily), and the vulva can change colors as a woman ages. Women should watch for drastic or sudden changes in vulvar appearance. Women should also check any types of lesions, like small cuts or sores. Women should examine themselves for any changes in the feeling of the vulva, including lumps.

It is important for women to do regular vulvar self-exams to get a sense of what is normal or typical for their body, so that any changes that might occur will be readily noticeable.

If someone notices a change or something unusual in, on, or around their genitals, they should make an appointment with a health care provider right away. A private physician or family planning clinic is a good place to start. Most family planning clinics operate on a sliding fee scale, meaning that the amount people are asked to pay depends on their income. Many health insurance policies will pay all or part of the costs associated with an exam.

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