Vaginal Douching: Helpful or Harmful?

Douching is the practice of washing or flushing the vagina with water or other fluids. Vaginal douches are available as prepackaged mixes, most commonly involving water mixed with vinegar, baking soda, or iodine. Douches are available at pharmacies and supermarkets.

Growing up with a lot of aunts around, I often came across douche bottles and I wondered what it was used for and when I discovered its use, I wondered if it was a necessary practice.

In recent times, the practice of douching has been fiercely discouraged by medical professionals and gynaecologists.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women avoid the practise of vaginal douching. Most physicians also do not recommend douching. Research shows that douching can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the vagina and can alter the normal pH of the vagina. Changes in the composition of the bacteria that normally reside within the vagina can lead to an increased risk of vaginal infections such as yeast infections. Douching can also cause the spread of harmful bacteria further up into the reproductive tract if an infection is already present in the vagina.

Women who douche state that they do so because they believe it offers health benefits, such as cleaning the vagina, rinsing away blood after menstrual periods, avoiding odour, and preventing pregnancy or infections. However, these beliefs are false, and douching is not necessary to “clean” the vagina. Douching also does not protect against pregnancy or against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It is rather a harmful practice.

Can Douching Cause Vaginitis? Vaginitis is inflammation of the vagina. Vaginitis can be caused by an infection with yeast, bacteria, or Trichomonas, but vaginitis also can be caused by non-infectious causes, for example, physical or chemical irritation such as:

  • Douches, soaps, or fragrances
  • Spermicides
  • Reduced estrogen levels around the time of menopause

Can douching be harmful? Yes, in some women, douching can lead to the spread of an infection or even the development of an infection by altering the balance of normal bacteria that are present in the vagina, as discussed previously. The risk of both bacterial vaginosis and sexually transmitted diseases may be increased by douching. Douching can also cause vaginal irritation.

What is the best way to clean the vagina? The vagina produces mucus, which acts as a natural cleansing agent to wash away the blood, semen, and vaginal discharge. Washing the outside of the vagina with mild soap and water with regular bathing is sufficient for good hygiene.

Can douching help relieve vaginal discharge, odour, pain, itching, or burning? An abnormal vaginal odour, discharge, or discomfort can signal the presence of an infection, so douching to relieve the symptom would only avoid the underlying problem and might even make the infection worse. If you have abnormal vaginal odour or discharge, pain, burning, or itching, it’s important to see your healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment. Douching before the doctor’s visit can make it more difficult to diagnose the problem and recommend the right therapy.

Can douching after sex prevent pregnancy? No, douching after sex does not prevent pregnancy and should never be used as a method of birth control.

Can douching after sex prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? Douching after sex or at any time has no effect in preventing STDs.

Can douching affect fertility or pregnancy? Some studies have shown that women who douche regularly take longer to become pregnant when trying to conceive than women who do not douche. Other research has shown that douching may damage the Fallopian tubes and lead to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus).

In pregnant women, douching was shown in one study to increase the risk of preterm birth by a factor of 1.9.

 

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

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