It exists.Not to troll here, but a lot of people (myself included, up to an embarrassingly old age) refer to the whole crotch area as the vagina, when this is not true. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the vulva is the general term for the "external female genital area." The vagina is a tube that connects the vulva to the cervix and uterus, serves as a birth canal, and allows menstrual blood to flow through it during a period.
It's got a few parts.The vulva encompasses both sets of labia (majora and minora), the head of the clitoris, the opening of the urethra, and the vaginal opening.
It can vary in color.The skin covering the vulva isn't always the same exact shade as the skin covering the rest of the body—it's totally normal for skin down there to be slightly lighter or darker than the rest of your bod.
Hair grows on it.At the onset of puberty (usually between ages eight and 13), dark, course pubic hair starts to grow on the vulva. There isn't a 100 percent-confirmed scientific explanation for why pubic hair exists, but the widely accepted theory is that it's an evolutionary device that protects the skin on the vulva from friction during sex.
And eventually that hair turns gray.Just like the hair elsewhere on your body! Natural part of aging, baby. Samantha on Sex and the City thrust graying pubes into popular culture when she spotted her first gray and attempted to dye it, rendering her pubes bright orange.
The skin down there is sensitive.Making it especially prone to problems like razor burn, and skin conditions like folliculitis and contact dermatitis. Most of these things are avoidable with proper care and ~loving attention~. Some general tips for avoiding razor burn are to shave toward the end of a shower, when the hair is softer from the humidity, and to shave with the direction of the hair, not against the grain. Folliculitis, a bacterial infection of the hair follicle that displays as small, red, painful bumps, can be avoided by shaving with a clean razor and avoiding scented soaps or lotions in the area. And contact dermatitis, skin irritation that results in itching and burning, can also be prevented by staying away from heavily scented soaps, perfumes, and laundry detergents.
It can get special cysts!Located under the skin near the opening of the vagina are Bartholin glands, which release a fluid during sex to help keep things lubed up and frictionless (though most people—really all people—need artificial lube as well). Sometimes those glands become blocked, and a cyst that shows up as a little bump appears on the vulva. These aren't painful unless they get infected, and can be treated with warm baths or compresses. If it gets painful, see a doctor.
It can be affected by vulvodynia.Defined by ACOG as three or more months of pain in the vagina/vulva that isn't caused by an infection or skin disorder, there are two types of vulvodynia. Localized vulvodynia refers to pain of the vagina, but generalized vulvodynia is pain throughout the vulva. It feels different for everyone who has it. But it's usually described as a burning, stinging, rawness, or soreness around the vulva. There are a lot of causes and a lot of different avenues for treatment, including therapy, pelvic floor therapy, and changing up birth control. But if you think you're experiencing this, you should talk about it with your doctor.
Some STIs have vulvar symptoms.Like genital herpes (or herpes simplex virus-2), which produces visible lesions on and around the vulva during an outbreak. These lesions look like tiny red sores, and usually appear in little clusters. HSV is most commonly spread during an outbreak, but can be spread at any time by someone with the virus (which is very common). If you notice sores, your doctor can most accurately test for HSV by swabbing one.
Other STIs can be spread through vulva contact.Like trichomoniasis, which is technically a parasite that's easily spread through sex, sex toy-sharing, and vulva-to-vulva contact. Planned Parenthood says seven out of 10 people with trich never show any symptoms at all, but when present, they're similar to symptoms of vaginitis (green, yellow, gray, or bad-smelling discharge; blood in vaginal discharge; itching and irritation near the vagina; pain during sex; and painful urination).
It needs very little SpEcIaL cArE.Aside from the things everyone should be doing to just generally stay healthy—regular STI tests, proper condom usage, regular showers—your vulva doesn't need a whole lot of extra attention. In fact, most irritation of the vulva is caused by giving it too much attention through things like vigorous scrubbing, scented products, or constant hair removal. Leave the vulva alone and it will leave you alone back.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.