Your vagina is a complex environment comprised of a healthy balance of microbes. Sometimes you may have a “symptom” of vaginal infections when what you’re experiencing is actually perfectly normal and no cause for concern. Other times, you may know that something’s wrong. Between yeast infections, allergic reactions, STIs, and other conditions, you aren’t sure what the problem is or what to do to feel better.
When so many vaginal infections present with the same set of symptoms, getting to the bottom of your condition can be tricky. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to have more than one infection at the same time.
Here is a run-down of the most common conditions that can affect your vagina.
Normal Vaginal Conditions
Through the normal course of the menstrual cycle, women’s vaginas can produce discharge. It is usually a clear or cloudy white discharge and is produced in order to clean itself. Some women find this uncomfortable or inconvenient and choose to wear thin pantyliners that can be easily changed every few hours. At certain times of the month, the discharge can feel thicker or thinner. This is the sign of a healthy menstrual cycle.
Your vagina may also produce an odor. Like all body odors, mild vaginal odors are normal and healthy. Most of the time, this is no cause for alarm.
When Should I be Concerned About my Vaginal Health?
Although your vagina’s characteristics may change throughout your monthly cycle, any drastic changes out of the ordinary may be cause for concern.
- Changes in vaginal discharge. If the discharge is persistently heavy, changes color, or smells different, this may be a sign of an infection.
- Pain during sex. Some occasional discomfort at penetration is normal, but persistent or severe pain or burning might indicate an infection.
- Itching, burning, stinging, swelling, or tenderness in the vagina
- Burning while urinating
What is Vaginitis?
Vaginitis is a generalized term that gynecologists use to refer to infections or inflammation of the vagina. This category includes many conditions you may have heard of, and some you might not, such as:
- Bacterial Vaginosis
- Yeast infections
- Allergic reactions (also known as non-infectious vaginitis)
Bacterial Vaginosis vs. Yeast Infection
These two conditions are due to an imbalance of the tiny microorganisms found in your vagina. Both vaginal yeast (candida) and bacteria work in harmony to keep your vagina healthy. However, an overgrowth of one or more of these microorganisms could cause some uncomfortable symptoms, including itching and discharge.
It’s important to diagnose your problem accurately so that you can get the right treatment. Treatments for yeast infections may aggravate a case of bacterial vaginosis.
Both vaginosis and yeast infections can cause a white, cloudy, or grayish discharge. So how can you tell the difference? A yeast infection will usually result in itching or burning and a white discharge that resembles cottage cheese. Bacterial vaginosis, on the other hand, might cause a fishy odor, and discharge that has the consistency of yogurt.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
STIs are viral and bacterial infections that are transmitted through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. The diseases that commonly cause vaginitis include:
- HPV – the virus that causes genital warts
Even if you don’t have symptoms, sexually active adults should get tested regularly for STIs, especially if they have multiple partners. Some cases don’t present with any symptoms at all, and it’s not uncommon for someone to transmit an infection without even realizing they were carrying it.
Each of these STIs could cause permanent damage to your reproductive system if left untreated. They may affect your fertility or increase your chances of developing cervical, vulvar, or vaginal cancer. It’s important to get tested and treated right away if you suspect you may have an STI.
Allergies or Irritations
Sometimes symptoms like itching, burning, and discharge are caused by other non-infectious irritants, such as:
- Detergents and fabric softeners
- Fragrances in soaps
This is a condition which mainly affects perimenopausal or postmenopausal women or women who have had their ovaries removed. One function of the hormone estrogen is to keep the vaginal tissue moist, supple, and strong. When the body stops producing estrogen, you may experience some vaginal dryness, itching, and burning as your tissue becomes thinner. Your gynecologist can discuss treatment options with you.
Treating vaginitis starts with getting a proper diagnosis. While these conditions often present with similar symptoms, they all have different causes and require different treatments. Even if you think you know what’s causing your symptoms, its best to make an appointment with your gynecologist.
Before you visit your doctor, take note of your symptoms. Avoid douching and vaginal intercourse for a couple days before the appointment. Also, try to avoid using over-the-counter treatments. Some treatments for one condition may exacerbate the cause of another condition, and it may make it more difficult to diagnose the problem.
If your condition is non-infectious, you may need to look at the products you’re using in your home. Choose fragrance-free soaps and hypoallergenic laundry detergents. Most doctors recommend avoiding douches, as they may disrupt the natural, healthy environment of your vagina.
Other helpful tips for promoting vaginal health:
- Wear comfortable, breathable underwear made from natural fibers like cotton. Nylon clothing or clothing that’s too tight can lock in heat and moisture, and may lead to yeast infections.
- Always change out of wet bathing suits after swimming.
- Using condoms is one of the most effective ways to prevent STIs. Even if your partner has no symptoms, or if you are using other contraceptives, it’s important to use condoms as a barrier to infections.
- There is some evidence to suggest that eating yogurt with active cultures can reduce your chances of getting a yeast infection.
- Attend your yearly check-ups at the gynecologist’s office and get regular pap smears