THE BLOG
08/19/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

Preparing for College: 5 Things Your Mother Never Told You About Your Vagina

It's here: college. It seems as if your whole life has been one long, motherly lecture about how to be prepared for life's next chapter, but mom may be missing some of the most important aspects of your new world. Besides hours of studying, loads of laundry and meeting new friends, your body and lifestyle will be changing. You may become sexually active, start dating that guy in your biology course or begin annual check-ups with your OB/GYN.

You probably have a lot of questions about being a woman and are just too embarrassed to visit your school's health center, let alone start a conversation about your vagina with new friends over lunch.

As you enter this new chapter in life, here are five facts about your vagina that you should know:

1. Getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can happen the first time you have sex.
Yes, it only takes one sexual encounter to get pregnant or acquire an STD. Even after a sexual encounter, sperm can live up to five days in the reproductive tract, even though an egg's life span is only 12 to 24 hours, so there still a chance you can get pregnant.

What can you do?
Be prepared and responsible when you plan to engage in sexual activity (i.e., vaginal, anal or oral). If you think you may have been exposed to an STD, see your doctor immediately to take appropriate tests and begin any necessary treatments. If you think you might be pregnant, you can take an at-home pregnancy test such as e.p.t. If it's positive, see your doctor as soon as possible to discuss next steps.

2. There is more than one method of birth control. There are two main kinds of contraception: hormonal and non-hormonal. Hormonal contraception, which does not protect against STDs and requires a prescription, uses synthetic hormones to mimic the natural estrogen levels in the body to prevent ovulation while non-hormonal contraception blocks or chemically kills the sperm before reaching the egg. What can you do? There's no need to be a birth control method aficionado; however, it is wise to know which birth control method is most reliable, comfortable and accessible for you. In order to make the right choice for your lifestyle, see your doctor for recommendations. Here are a few options: Hormonal contraception: Non-hormonal contraception:

3. Your menstrual cycle and vaginal discharge can change as you get older.
As you age and your body changes, so do your menstrual cycle's natural length, flow and quality of discharge. Most women have menstrual cycles that last from 24 to 35 days.

What can you do?
It is never too early to pay attention to your cycle regularity and vaginal discharge. If your vaginal discharge is thick, white and lumpy like cottage cheese, you may have contracted a yeast infection, which is also characterized by itching and burning sensations. But a self-diagnosed "yeast infection" may not be one at all. If you have thin, grayish-white discharge -- not white, thick and lumpy -- you may have bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is actually the most common type of vaginal infection. Unlike a yeast infection, BV has a strong fishy odor, and it requires prescription treatment. But the two infections do share some symptoms, so it is important to speak with your doctor to properly diagnose, and identify appropriate treatment. Also, see your doctor before running to the pharmacy for an over the counter (OTC) product if it is your first time experiencing these symptoms, even if you're certain you have a yeast infection.

4. Familiarize yourself with "down there."
From colors and discharge to shapes and textures, your vagina may seem like a foreign entity. Every woman's vagina looks different, and it is normal and healthy to become familiar with yours.

What can you do?
We recommend using a hand mirror to observe your vagina. If you're ever in a state of mere confusion or shock, simply ask your gynecologist to explain the anatomy to you. If you ever notice a change such as unusual discharge, itching or redness, visit your doctor for a diagnosis.

5. Realize that a yeast infection isn't the end of the world.
You may be still stuck on the last two points that mention yeast infections, and we understand. Yeast infections have traditionally been viewed as something to be afraid of, making the subject taboo. But let's get over it now: They're normal.

What can you do?
A recent survey by Monistat revealed that two thirds of women think that having a yeast infection is embarrassing, when really 75% of us will have one at some point in our lives. Furthermore, less than half of women feel uncomfortable openly discussing a yeast infection with a friend, and 9% of women wouldn't even discuss it with their doctor. The truth is that there's no need to panic, as these infections are completely normal and easy to treat. If you've had a yeast infection before, it may be fine to try an over-the-counter product like Monistat, which is just as effective as prescription treatments. Symptom relief can begin soon after the first dose, with a full cure in several days. You can also prevent yeast infections by avoiding douches, scented hygiene products, tight underwear or clothing made of synthetic fibers, and changing tampons and pads often during your period.

College comes with big life changes that you need to be prepared for, but it's important to pay respect to your vagina as well. You won't need to pack these facts in your suitcase, just keep yourself educated, be smart, and never stop asking questions just like in your 8 a.m. finance course, right?