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 vaginal 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.
Common Symptoms of Vaginal Infection
Although your vagina’s characteristics may change throughout your monthly cycle, any drastic changes out of the ordinary may be cause for concern.
- Vaginal itching and as well as irritation in the vulva
- A burning sensation, especially during sexual intercourse
- Discomfort while urinating, sometimes confused as urinary tract infections
- Redness and swelling of the vulva
- Vaginal pain and soreness
- Vaginal rash
- Thick, white, odor-free vaginal discharge with a cottage cheese appearance
- Watery vaginal discharge
Complicated vaginal infection
You might have a complicated vaginal infection if:
- You have severe signs and symptoms, such as extensive redness, swelling, and itching that leads to tears, cracks or sores
- You have four or more yeast infections in a yearYour infection is caused by a less typical type of fungus
- You’re pregnant
- You have uncontrolled diabetes
- Your immune system is weakened because of certain medications or conditions such as HIV infection
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
- Trichomona vaginosis
- 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 albicans) 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 vaginal 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 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.
Bacterial vaginosis is the most common cause of vaginitis results from a change of the normal bacteria found in your vagina, to overgrowth of one of several other organisms. Usually, bacteria normally found in the vagina (lactobacilli) are outnumbered by other bacteria (anaerobes) in your vagina. If anaerobic bacteria become too numerous, they upset the balance, causing bacterial vaginosis.
Factors that increase your risk of developing a yeast infection include:
- Antibiotic use. Yeast infections are common in women who take antibiotics. Broad-spectrum antibiotics, which kill a range of bacteria, also kill healthy bacteria in your vagina, leading to overgrowth of yeast.
- Increased estrogen levels. Yeast infections are more common in women with higher estrogen levels — such as pregnant women or women taking high-dose estrogen birth control pills or estrogen hormone therapy.
- Uncontrolled diabetes. Women with poorly controlled blood sugar are at greater risk of yeast infections than women with well-controlled blood sugar.
- Impaired immune system. Women with lowered immunity — such as from corticosteroid therapy or HIV infection — are more likely to get yeast infections.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
Sexually transmitted infections or sexually transmitted diseases are viral and bacterial infections that are transmitted through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. The diseases that commonly cause vaginitis include:
- Trichomona vaginosis
- 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 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.
Condoms during sexual contact are the best way to prevent passing infections between sexual partners.
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
- Bubble baths
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 health care professional.
Treatment for vaginal infections depends on the cause and may include:
- Antibiotics, such as metronidazole or clindamycin are often prescribed to treat Bacterial vaginitis
- Butoconazole and clotrimazole to treat fungal infections
- Cortisone cream for irritation
- Antihistamines for allergic reactions
- Topical estrogen cream for low estrogen levels
Before you visit women’s health care doctor, take note of your symptoms. Avoid douching and vaginal intercourse for a couple of 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 or underwear with a cotton crotch. 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