Having low levels of healthy bacteria in your vagina may increase your chance of developing ovarian cancer, groundbreaking new research has established.
The scientific study was carried out by University College London, and was funded in part by the tampon tax. It suggests the vaginal microbiome (micro-organisms living inside the vagina) might be a risk factor for the gynaecological cancer—alongside family history, being overweight, and a woman's age.
Researchers say this information could, in theory, be used as the basis for a screening to identify women at higher risk of ovarian cancer. Currently, there is no such test.
Expert gynecologist for Canesten, Dr. Anne Henderson, tells Cosmopolitan UK that the study found a particular correlation between increased ovarian cancer link and low levels of the bacteria lactobacillus.
"Lactobacillus is one of the key bacteria responsible for providing general vaginal protection and maintenance of good vaginal health," she says. The more lactobacillus you have, the less likely you are to develop thrush or bacterial vaginosis.
So does this mean that vaginal hygiene could play a role in the onset of ovarian cancer? Well, not exactly. We know using perfumed or chemical-ridden products to "clean" the vagina (which is self-cleaning, let's not forget) can upset the balance of friendly bacteria, potentially causing infections. But what we don't know is whether this upset balance is a cause of ovarian cancer, or merely a repercussion. If low levels of healthy bacteria can cause ovarian cancer, then it could rightly be inferred that bad vaginal hygiene habits may play a part in heightening the risk of ovarian cancer. But more research needs to be conducted in this area to work it out whether or not this is the case.
Regardless of any ovarian cancer risk, the gynecologist urges the importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome in your vagina. "It is essential to prevent common infections such as thrush and BV," says Dr. Henderson. "Maintaining a healthy balance of organisms also helps reduce excessive vaginal discharge and malodour, which can cause vaginal discomfort, including during intercourse."
How do you maintain good vaginal hygiene?
"Women should avoid the use of vaginal hygiene products, particularly those which are highly scented and contain additives such as parabens, alcohol and fragrance," advises Dr. Henderson. "Women should also avoid vaginal douches—both douches and vaginal cleansing products can upset the microbiome and the acidic vaginal pH, leading to reduced levels of the healthy lactobacillus organism."
If you're worried about having low levels of healthy bacteria down there, the gynaecologist suggests using a targeted probiotic containing lactobacillus. This can reduce the risk of thrush and BV as well as maintaining good vaginal health. Alternatively, using a vaginal pH modulating gel regularly for seven to 14 days each month can help to maintain a healthy acidic pH, encouraging the presence of vaginal lactobacillus.
Neither of these options are imperative, however. Remember, the vagina is a magical unicorn with self cleaning talents. "Women should ideally wash with plain warm water with minimal use of soap/shower gels wherever possible," reiterates the gynaecologist.
What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
More than 7,300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the UK, including 1,000 women under the age of 50. For that reason, it's important to be aware of the symptoms, especially if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
Four of the most common symptoms are:
- Persistent bloating
- Needing to urinate more frequently
- Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
- Pelvic or abdominal pain (your tummy and below)
Dr. Anne Henderson is a gynecologist with over 15 years of experience.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.