What’s Up with the ‘Sports Vagina’?
Raise your hand if after you pulled down your leggings you noticed either a distinct or strong odor or irritation.
The nonmedical term for these exercise-induced vaginal side effects is “sports vagina.”
The first thing you need to know about sports vagina, says Lauren Streicher, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, is that it isn’t an official medical term or condition.
Rather, it’s the colloquial phrase used to encompass a number of different issues that can crop up between the legs from working out, such as:
In fact, Streicher points out that using the word “vagina” is actually confusing and anatomically incorrect.
“When people talk about the vagina, usually what they are referring to is the outer portions, which is the vulva. The vagina is the inside, and that’s not typically what folks are referring to,” Streicher says.
Terminology aside, there’s no denying that some vulva issues and injuries can occur either during or after a sweat session. Does that mean you can use your vulva as an excuse to take another rest day? Not quite.
But it may mean swapping your current athleisure for workout garb that’s better suited for exercise.
Below, find everything you need to know about how working out can affect you between the legs. Plus, what you can do to prevent it.
What’s the deal around odor?
Just as every vagina has its own flare, every vagina has its own natural scent, which is dependent on a number of factors, such as diet, hydration, sex, and hormones. It’s very common to notice that your smell is stronger or more pronounced right after a workout too.
“The smell is probably just sweat,” Streicher says. “If you’re working out, you’re sweating, so the scent is probably just genital sweat.”
Kecia Gaither, MD, OB-GYN, offers a similar sentiment: “The vaginal area contains two types of sweat glands: the eccrine glands, which produce moisture that is mostly odorless, and the apocrine glands, which are pretty abundant in hair follicles (which the groin has), and which releases an oilier, smellier sweat.”
So, yep, you could just have a sweaty crotch — although it may not just be sweat. Workouts with a lot of jumping (think box jumps, jump rope, and burpees) may also cause a little bit of urine or discharge to come out, which Streicher says can make the smell muskier too.
Overall, slight changes in your fragrance are normal. So, if you notice a stronger odor after exercising, don’t fret too much. Your best bet is to change out of your workout gear instead of trying to cover up the smell with potentially irritating products, Gaither says.
But if you still notice a strange smell compared to your usual one after a shower, go see a healthcare provider. It could be a symptom of an infection.
How to handle chafing and irritation like a champ
While there’s a lot of chatter about the inner-thigh chafing among female athletes, vulvar chafing is possible too.
Streicher suggests applying Aquaphor, petroleum jelly, or Vaseline to the outside of the vulva to create a barrier between your skin and your clothing as a first line of defense. (Emphasis on outside!)
And as for clothing? “What styles and fits of clothes that are nonirritating to you comes down to personal preference and body shape. Snug, loose, tight, it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to take some trial and error on your part to figure out what your body responds poorly to,” Streicher says. “Usually, cotton is almost always best because it’s most breathable.”
Consider replacing your tight workout clothes with slightly looser cotton ones. If not, your best bet is to bop into the locker room after your workout and change out of your bottoms.
If your vulvar chafing doesn’t go away with home treatments, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid.
What if you’re not exactly experiencing chafing but your vulva and bikini line are showing signs of irritation like redness, dryness, or itching? The recommended treatments above should work, Gaither says. “Also make sure you’re not washing with any potential irritants,” she adds.