Vulvovaginitis is an inflammation or infection of the vulva and vagina. It’s a common condition that affects women and girls of all ages, and it has a variety of causes. Other names for this condition are vulvitis and vaginitis.
Many triggers can cause vulvovaginitis, including:
- environmental factors
- sexually transmitted infections
- chemical irritants
Certain bacteria can proliferate and can cause vulvovaginitis. These bacteria include Streptococcus, Gardnerella, and Staphylococcus. A bacterial infection can cause a grayish-white discharge that smells fishy. However, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, about half of women with this type of infection have no symptoms.
One of the most common causes of vulvovaginitis is Candida albicans. This yeast infection can cause genital itching and a thick, white vaginal discharge that is similar to cottage cheese. A yeast infection often follows the use of antibiotics. Antibiotics can kill the antifungal bacteria that normally live in the vagina. This can lead to yeast infection.
Viruses that can cause vulvovaginitis include herpes simplex and human papillomavirus (HPV).
Pinworms, scabies, and lice can cause inflammation of the vulva and vagina.
Poor hygiene and allergens can cause this condition. Tight clothing can rub against the skin and create irritation. Irritated skin is more susceptible to vulvovaginitis than normal skin. Irritation can also delay recovery.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
The sexually transmitted infection (STI) trichomonas vaginitis can also cause vulvovaginitis. This causes genital discomfort, itching, and heavy discharge. This discharge can be yellow, green, or gray. It often has a strong odor. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes can also cause vaginitis. These infections in a child might indicate abuse. However, some of these can transfer to a child without sexual contact.
- Some chemicals can cause vulvovaginitis. These often appear in the form of:
- bubble bath
- feminine spray
- vaginal contraceptives
Sometimes vulvovaginitis has no known cause. According to KidsHealth, this is the most common gynecological condition in prepubescent girls. Doctors believe this is due to low estrogen. When puberty begins, the vagina becomes more acidic and the infections usually stop.
The symptoms of vulvovaginitis vary and depend on their cause.
In general, symptoms can include:
- irritation of the genital area
- genital itching
- inflammation, specifically around the labia and perineal areas
- foul odor that’s typically quite strong
- increased vaginal discharge
- discomfort when urinating, including a burning sensation
A doctor will diagnose vulvovaginitis by discussing your symptoms and possibly collecting a sample of vaginal discharge to test.
In most cases, the doctor will need to perform a pelvic examination. A wet prep may be necessary to correctly identify the cause of your inflammation. This involves collecting some vaginal discharge for microscopic evaluation. This will identify the organism and make treatment quicker and more successful.
In rare cases, it may be necessary to biopsy the vulva to identify the organism. This means the doctor will take a small sample of tissue for further examination. A biopsy is usually only necessary if there’s no sign of irritation.
The correct treatment for vulvovaginitis depends on the type of infection and the organism causing the problems. It’s possible to treat some types of vulvovaginitis on your own. However, you should speak with a healthcare provider before initiating any treatment.
If you have had a yeast infection in the past, you may be able to treat vulvovaginitis using over-the-counter products. A pharmacist will be able to advise you on the best product for your symptoms and how to apply the product. Consult your doctor if the inflammation isn’t better after a week.
After your doctor identifies the type of organism causing your vulvovaginitis, they will prescribe medication to cure the condition.
This could include:
- oral antibiotics
- antibiotic creams applied directly to the skin
- antifungal creams applied directly to the skin
- antibacterial creams applied directly to the skin
- oral antihistamines, if an allergic reaction is a possibility
- estrogen creams
- oral antifungal pills
Your doctor may also recommend a personal hygiene routine to help heal the infection and prevent it from recurring. This could include taking sitz baths and wiping properly after using the toilet.
Other suggestions include wearing loose clothing and cotton underwear to allow the circulation of air and reduce moisture. Removing underwear at bedtime may also help.
Proper cleansing is important and may help prevent irritation. This is especially true if the infection is bacterial. Avoid using bubble bath, perfumed soaps, and washing powders as much as possible. Opt for sitz baths instead. You may also find sensitive-skin versions of these products less irritating.
A cold compress is useful to relieve pain on swollen or tender areas.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
It’s important to alert your sexual partners if your vulvovaginitis is the result of an STI. All sexual partners should receive treatment for the condition, even if they’re not currently showing symptoms.
It’s important not to have sexual contact with anyone who currently has the condition. This is true whether the affected person is still receiving treatment or has yet to be treated.
Most cases of vulvovaginitis will heal quickly when properly treated. Return to your doctor if you don’t see an improvement within one week. You may find that alternative treatments are more effective.
If yeast is causing your vulvovaginitis, you may find the infection sometimes returns. Over-the-counter products can usually treat this.