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Vaginal Infections

What Is Vaginal Infection (Vaginitis)?

Vaginitis refers to a few different conditions that may cause infection or inflammation in your vagina. The similar umbrella term vulvovaginitis describes inflammation of both your vagina and your vulva, the outer part of your genitals.

Vaginal infections can have many different causes, and they are quite common. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that one-third of people with vaginitis will develop vaginitis at some point in life.

These infections can happen any time, but they are most common during your reproductive years, or in your late teens to early 40s.

You can develop vaginal infection without having penetrative sex, or any other type of sex. In other words, vaginitis is not the same as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), although certain types of sexual activity can sometimes be a factor – more details on that below.


Vaginal Infections

Symptoms Of Vaginal Infection 

Vaginal infections do not always cause noticeable symptoms. If you do develop symptoms, you'll notice some of these common:

  • vaginal itching and burning
  • vaginal soreness and discomfort
  • inflamed, flushed, or swollen skin around your vagina and vulva
  • a change in the amount of vaginal discharge
  • a change in the color of vaginal discharge
  • pain or burning during urination
  • pain during penetrative vaginal sex
  • vaginal bleeding or spotting

You may have only one or some of the symptoms listed above. If your symptoms do not go away within a few days, or if they get worse, it is important to see a health care professional to receive diagnosis and treatment.

You might also notice some of these symptoms, especially a painful or burning sensation while urinating, if you have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Here’s how to recognize a UTI.

If you have a urinary tract infection (UTI), you may also experience some of these symptoms, especially pain or burning during urinating. Here's how to recognize a UTI.


Types Of Vaginal Infections

Vaginal infections share so many similar symptoms, making it hard to identify exactly what's going on. Each type of infection does involve a few unique symptoms:

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)- Bacterial Vaginosis often causes a thin gray-white, green or yellow discharge. This discharge may have a fish-like odor that gets stronger after vaginal sex. You may not notice much itching.

Yeast Infections- This infection usually include vaginal and vulvar itching, soreness, and burning. With a yeast infection, you may also notice swelling of the labia, or skin folds outside your vagina. Any discharge will usually be white and lumpy, the texture of which some say resembles cottage cheese.

Trichomoniasis- This infection usually causes both vaginal itching and a fish-like odor. Along with a greenish-yellow, foamy discharge, you may also notice swelling, burning, and swelling in your vagina and vulva. Other symptoms of trichomoniasis include pain during vaginal sex, lower abdominal pain, and burning and pain during urination.

Atrophic Vaginitis- It's not an infection at all, but it can increase your chances of developing vaginal infections and UTIs. With atrophic vaginitis, you may experience symptoms that resemble symptoms of other infections, such as vaginal itching, burning, dryness, and changes in discharge.


Vaginal Infections

What Causes Vaginal Infections?

In basic terms, a vaginal infection develops when something affects the normal balance of bacteria and yeast in your vagina.

Here are some common causes of vaginal infections:

Bacterial Infections- Overgrowth of a certain bacteria naturally occurring in your vagina can lead to Bacterial Vaginosis. While Bacterial Vaginosis is not considered an STI, sexual contact — including hand-to-hand genital, oral, and penetrative vaginal sex — can cause bacterial overgrowth and increase your chances of developing Bacterial Vaginosis.

Yeast Infections- Yeast infections are usually caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. Various factors, including antibiotics, hormonal changes, a compromised immune system and stress, can reduce the number of antifungal bacteria in your vagina, leading to an overgrowth of yeast. This overgrowth can cause symptoms of a yeast infection.

Trichomoniasis- The protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis causes this infection. Most people contract trichomoniasis by having vaginal, oral or anal sex without an internal or external condom. Still, some evidence suggests that you can also contract it through shared bathing water. Other rare (but possible) modes of transmission include damp toilet seats, pools, and shared towels or damp clothing.

Vaginal Atrophy- This condition rarely develops after menopause, but it can also occur while you are nursing or at any other time when you experience a drop in estrogen levels. Decreased hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness, which can lead to vaginal swelling.

Douching- Washing your vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, baking soda, iodine, or other antiseptic ingredients can be a good way to keep it clean. But the truth is that your vagina can keep itself clean. This practice actually reduces the healthy bacteria in your vagina, making infections more likely.

Soap, Body Wash, And Perfume- Washing your vagina with a soap and body wash or even spraying it with perfume can disrupt its natural pH. While it is perfectly fine to rinse your vulva and vagina with plain water, any other product or fragrance can kill the healthy bacteria in your vagina and increase the chance of infection.

Spermicidal Contraceptives- This method of birth control can come in gel, film, or suppository form. You insert it directly into your vagina, where it dissolves to kill sperm and prevent unwanted pregnancy. While spermicides work well for some people, they can cause vaginal irritation and inflammation, and they can increase the chance of vaginal infections.

Tight-Fitting Or Synthetic Clothing- Underwear and bottoms that can't "breathe" can irritate the vagina by trapping moisture and blocking airflow, making infection more likely. Wearing very tight bottoms, or leaving it on wet bottoms after a workout or swim, can have a similar effect.

Detergent And Fabric Softener- Did the symptoms appear soon after you changed your laundry products? Scented detergents and fabric softeners can also affect vaginal pH and contribute to yeast infections.

In some cases, a health care professional may not be able to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as non-specific vulvovaginitis. It can occur in vagina-havers of any age, but it is more common in young people who have not entered puberty.


How Are Vaginal Infections Treated?

Treatment of a vaginal infection will depend on what caused the infection.

A doctor or therapist may prescribe:

  • Metronidazole (as a tablet, cream, or gel) or clindamycin (as a cream or gel) to treat a bacterial infection.
  • Antifungal cream or suppository to treat yeast infection. You can also buy over-the-counter yeast infection medicines at your local pharmacy or drugstore, but if the infection doesn't go away or if it keeps coming back, you'll want to see a healthcare professional.
  • Metronidazole or tinidazole tablets to treat trichomoniasis.
  • Estrogen creams or tablets to help treat severe vaginal dryness and irritation associated with atrophic vaginitis.

Healthcare professionals will usually also recommend avoiding irritants, such as strong or perfumed soap, scented tampons or pads, and douches.


How Can You Prevent Vaginal Infections?

Not all vaginal infections can be prevented, but these tips can help to reduce your chances of developing them:

  • Avoid using scented period products, including tampons, pads, and liners.
  • Avoid douching, vaginal deodorants, and any scented sprays or perfumes in or out of your vagina.
  • Bath only with plain water only, as bubble baths and scented body washes can affect the pH of the vagina.
  • Wash sex toys after each of them use according to their care instructions. Avoid sharing sex toys before cleaning them.
  • Wear cotton underwear, or underwear with a cotton crotch, to improve airflow and help to prevent vaginal irritation and inflammation. Change your underwear at least once a day or after exercising.
  • Stick to tights, leggings, pantyhose and workout bottoms that have cotton crotch.
  • Replace swimsuits and damp workout gear as soon as possible to help prevent excess moisture.
  • Switch to an odorless detergent, or one designed for sensitive skin, and skip the scented fabric softener.

Using condom during sex can reduce your chances of getting a vaginal infection, even though a vaginal infection is not considered an STI.

Remember, condoms not only protect against STIs — they also help prevent changes in vaginal pH that can alter the balance of bacteria in your vagina.

A few things to keep in mind when choosing and using condoms:

  • Avoid using flavored condoms for vaginal sex.
  • Pre-lubricated or spermicide condoms can also cause irritation.
  • Always use a new condom for vaginal penetration after anal sex.

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