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What You’re Afraid To Ask About Odor And Itch ‘Down There’

If you're experiencing odor and itch but don't feel comfortable asking a running buddy or coach what to do, we have you covered.

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odor and itch

When it comes to offering up advice about running, training partners and coaches are often the best place to turn. But what about those questions that you are just too afraid to ask? That is where we have you covered.

There are multiple reasons that a runner may experience odor and itch ‘down there,’ and we talked to Barb DePree, MD with Lakeshore Health Partners, to find out what you need to know. What causes it and should you be worried? Is it preventable? Check out what Dr. DePree thinks all runners should know.

Is there a common cause of odor and itch down there?

Dr. DePree: There are multiple reasons for vulvar itching including infections, skin conditions, skin sensitivities to products that come in contact with the vulva, and hormonal changes; and there are times in which we just can’t determine a cause. A vaginal odor is typically caused by a vaginal infection, but general hygiene or a retained tampon may be a cause of odor as well. Some women have sensitive skin everywhere, and that certainly includes the vulvar area.

Vaginal odor can arise from a disruption of bacteria in the area. One of the most common causes is the overgrowth of a bacteria called Gardnerella. A change in the vaginal pH can lead to this, and there are many causes of pH changes. The treatment can be an over-the-counter product like RepHresh, a vaginal gel that restores normal the pH. There is some research suggesting probiotics, like RepHresh Pro-B, might help to prevent these occurrences by sustaining the healthy bacteria population of lactobacilli.

What do women runners specifically need to know about odor and itch?

Dr. DePree: Because the vulva and vagina are areas that stay moist they can be uniquely susceptible as a breeding ground for infection. Bacterial live on your skin everywhere, and in the vagina, too. But when the skin is disrupted (from rubbing after a long run, for instance) the bacteria can lead to infection. Making sure the area stays as clean as dry as possible is a good idea, taking off sweaty, wet underwear/shorts after a run is ideal and a quick shower or cleaning of the area is a good habit to have as well.

Is there anything specific women runners can do to prevent these things? Special underwear? A special washing routine?

Dr. DePree: Wear loose fitting clothes; rubbing anywhere on the body wreaks havoc after a few miles and this is especially true for the vulva. A running short with a built-in cotton lining is great, or no underwear under the shorts may be a great option, too.  Avoid tight, non-breathable fabrics. Washing soon after the run is best, especially if you seem to be vulnerable to irritation and infection. Since the vulvar skin can be more sensitive avoid harsh, scented soaps and cleansers, just clear water or a mild soap will get the job done. No vigorous scrubbing needed!

The most important thing to know is: DON’T DOUCHE. It will really never ‘clean things up’ (your vagina actually has a great ability to do that). Douching is only more likely to worsen the pH, dry out vaginal tissues and wipe away the healthy lactobacilli. If you have tried a treatment and it didn’t help, seek treatment. Some women spend months, and a lot of money, treating vulvar itching as recurrent yeast infections and in fact they may have a serious vulvar condition that needs proper treatment.

Does a doctor need to treat these issues? Or can someone resolve them on their own?

Dr. DePree: If a problem of vaginal odor or vulvar irritation and itching persists and doesn’t resolve over a few days you should call to be seen by your provider; a careful exam will determine what is going on and the proper treatment option. Sometimes these issues can self correct, or using an over-the-counter product like RepHresh or ProB may help. If there is redness or swelling you should be seen right away.