Our teen patients often ask us about anatomy. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of misinformation and rumors swirling, and they want to know what’s happening inside their body, where it’s happening, and how it occurs.
Knowing the basics about the body and what happens during puberty can help children to feel empowered about their health and can help them be more understanding with their peers.
Puberty is a physical process where the body matures internally and becomes capable of reproduction. Typically this process starts as early as age 8 for females, but the average age can vary. Puberty happens in stages, starting with hormonal changes, followed by physical changes. For example, girls may experience normal weight gain, pubic hair growth, and breasts begin developing. Physical changes may also include armpit hair growth (and increased body odor), acne, higher amounts of fat on the hips and thighs, and a faster growth rate. During puberty, most girls will also experience vaginal discharge (it’s perfectly normal!) and, eventually, their first period. This includes the ability to physically become pregnant.
Every person develops at a different rate and may see physical changes in a different order from their friends or siblings. It’s important to talk to your child about the changes they might see, but also let them know there’s no correct age or order to experience these changes. Encourage your child to talk to their provider if they have a concern.
The uterus is an organ between the bladder and rectum. It looks like an upside-down pear, and is typically only 3 inches long and 2 inches wide on average. Every month, the uterus builds up its lining with extra blood and tissue.
Girls have two ovaries (one on each side of the body). Each month, one ovary releases an egg, which travels down the fallopian tube and ends up in the uterus.
If the egg is fertilized with sperm, it may remain in the uterus and develop into a baby. If the egg is not fertilized, the uterus will release the egg, extra blood and tissue as a period.
Although the process is typically called a 28-day cycle, everyone experiences a different cycle length and length of period. Therefore, we recommend keeping a personal log of cycle dates and symptoms so if you have a concern, it’s easier to identify problems.
During a period, the uterus contracts to help get rid of the blood and tissue it doesn’t need. Your body creates a hormone-like substance (prostaglandins) that makes your uterine muscles tighten and contract.
A baby grows inside the uterus, which is sometimes called the womb. The uterus doesn’t grow during a period, but the lining inside the uterine wall will swell with blood and tissue.
When a woman becomes pregnant, the uterus swells and grows. Near the end of pregnancy, the uterus can swell to the size of a watermelon. Other conditions can cause the uterus to grow and swell in size.
Endometriosis, often called endo, is when the tissue that should be inside your uterus grows into other parts of your body. This tissue gets thicker, breaks down, and bleeds just like all uterine tissue does during your period, but if the tissue isn’t inside your uterus, the blood has nowhere to go, and the inflammation and swelling can cause pain and irritation inside your body. Discomfort during a menstrual cycle is normal, but intense or prolonged pain is not typical. It’s always a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider if you think your symptoms are unusual or unusually strong.
Although many people call all female genitals “the vagina,” the term is “the vulva.” The vulva includes the clitoral hood and clitoris, the labia (sometimes called the vaginal lips), the urethral opening, and the vaginal opening. Separate from the vulva is the anus.
A common misconception is that girls pee from the vagina. But there are two openings in the vulva. Directly below the clitoris is the urethra (where you pee from), and below is the vaginal opening. That means during her period, a girl can wear a tampon or menstrual cup and still be able to go to the bathroom and pee without removing her period protection. And while a girl can hold her urine for a short time, you cannot “hold” or stop the period flow.
Yeast lives naturally on the body and inside the vagina, but sometimes, something throws off the balance, and the yeast grows too much. When this happens, a girl may experience itchy or burning sensations in the vulva or vagina. Additionally, girls may experience thicker discharge. A yeast infection may also cause discomfort or stinging when peeing.
A yeast infection is not a sexually-transmitted disease and can be caused by numerous things, including hormonal changes. Some people are particularly prone to yeast infections and may find them harder to get rid of than the average person. If you suspect a yeast infection, talk to your provider about diagnosis and treatment, and avoid using any internal products until the infection has gone away.
A Urinary-Tract Infection (UTI) is typically when bacteria invade the bladder.
A UTI can cause pain or burning when peeing, the urge to pee often, urine that smells weird or looks cloudy, blood in the urine, or other signs of infection like fever and feeling ill. If you experience these symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider.
You can help prevent UTIs by wiping front to back and always washing your hands before interacting with the vulva. Also, change period products regularly and according to the instructions.