Women's Health - American Sexual Health Association

Women’s Health

Have you ever heard anyone use the term, “female plumbing”? Despite the primitive nickname, it’s actually a good analogy. The female reproductive system is a series of orifices (openings) for intake and output through tubes and passages. The interior part of the system performs the most important functions; the exterior acts as a cover to protect the delicate interior organs. When it’s in good working order, it’s a marvel. When it’s not, it can be disastrous. To continue the image a little further, it pays to understand how the system works so you can maintain, rather than repair it.

Know Your Body

The two halves – interior and exterior – are designed to work together as a whole for one purpose: to enable sperm to fertilize an egg to produce offspring. That’s why sex is so pleasurable; the drive to have sex ensures the continuation of the human race. If the egg is not fertilized within a menstrual cycle, Plan B kicks in. The lining of the uterus isn’t needed to cushion a fetus, so it’s discharged (that’s when you get your period) and the cycle begins again.

There are four reproductive organs within the interior part of the system. Click on any one for more information:

The ovaries are small, oval-shaped glands that are located on either side of the uterus (womb). The ovaries produce eggs and hormones. Hormonal methods of birth control manipulate the hormones that cause ovulation and stop it from occurring (in most cases).

The vagina is a canal that joins the cervix (the lower part of uterus) to the outside of the body. Its exterior opening enables sperm to enter the system to reach an egg. If an egg is not fertilized, menstruation results and the blood is carried out of the body through the vagina. It also provides a way for a baby to exit the body. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as the birth canal.

Fallopian tubes
These are narrow tubes that are attached to the upper part of the uterus and serve as tunnels for the ova (egg cells) to travel from the ovaries to the uterus. Conception, the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, normally occurs in the fallopian tubes. The fertilized egg then moves to the uterus, where it implants to the uterine wall. If implantation occurs in the fallopian tube, this is called an ectopic pregnancy and requires treatment immediately.

The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ that is the home to a developing fetus. The uterus is divided into two parts: the cervix, which is the lower part that opens into the vagina, and the main body of the uterus, called the corpus. The corpus can easily expand to hold a developing baby.

The cervix is the lower third of the uterus. The small whole in the center of the cervix, called the os, serves a passageway into the uterus. This is what dilates or stretches during birth. The os also serves as a passageway for menstrual blood. The cervix feels like a half-sphere at the end of the vaginal canal and is where a diaphragm, cervical cap, or sponge can be placed to prevent pregnancy. Collection of abnormal cells from the cervix during a pap smear can indicate a possibility of cervical cancer but may also be a simple infection. It is important to have regular pap smears and HPV (an STI that can cause cervical cancer) tests to maintain the health of your cervix and surrounding reproductive organs.

Female anatomy

There are five major components that make up the exterior part of the system or the vulva. It is important to remember that every vulva is unique and has different characteristics. Labia (both majora and minora) vary widely in size and length as well as size of the clitoris and clitoral hood. This uniqueness should be treasured and no one characteristic (such as short labia minora) should hold more value than another.

Click on any one for more information:

Mons pubis
The mons is the rounded fatty mass over the pubic bone covered with hair and coarse skin. It acts as a buffer during sexual intercourse, preventing injury to the underlying bone. It also contains sebaceous and sweat glands. Some of the latter form a specialized type of gland called the apocrine glands. These glands release a secretion with a characteristic smell that increases sexual attraction.

Labia majora
Literally translated as “large lips,” the labia majora are relatively large and fleshy, and are comparable to the scrotum in males. Their job is to enclose and protect the other external reproductive organs. They contain sweat and oil-secreting glands.

Labia minora
The labia minora (“small lips”) are delicate flaps of soft skin that lie within the labia majora, creating another layer of protection for the female reproductive organs.

The two labia minora meet at the clitoris, a small, sensitive protrusion that is comparable to the penis in males. The clitoris is covered by a fold of skin, called the prepuce or clitoral hood, which is similar to the foreskin at the end of the penis. Like the penis, the clitoris is very sensitive to stimulation and can become erect.

Bartholin's glands
These two bean-shaped glands are located on either side of the vaginal opening and produce a (mucus) secretion that acts as a lubricating fluid.

External female genitalia

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