What causes vaginal infections? 6 possible conditions
Vaginitis is the medical word used to describe a number of conditions that can cause infection or inflammation of the vagina. Vulvovaginitis is the term used to describe inflammation of both the vagina and the vulva, or the external genital organs.
Vaginal infections can have a number of causes. If you develop a vaginal infection, your doctor will diagnose, address and treat your infection based on its cause. Common causes of vaginal infections include:
- Bacterial infections: Certain bacteria are commonly found in the vagina. If overgrowth of these bacteria occurs, this may result in a common infection known as bacterial vaginosis.
- Yeast infections: Yeast infections are caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. (Candida Albicans causes most but not all yeast infections). Many things, including antibiotics, can reduce the amount of antifungal bacteria that is typically present in the vagina. When this happens, the fungus will be able to grow, and may result in an infection.
- Trichomoniasis: This vaginal infection is caused by a protozoan parasite that can be contracted through sexual intercourse.
- Vaginal atrophy: This condition commonly occurs following menopause, but can develop during other times in a woman’s life such as breastfeeding, when estrogen levels decline. Reduced hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness. This can lead to inflammation of the vagina.
- Irritants: Soaps, body washes, perfumes, and vaginal contraceptives can all irritate the vagina resulting in inflammation. Tight-fitting clothes may also cause heat rashes that irritate the vagina.
In some instances, it may not be possible for your doctor to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as nonspecific vulvovaginitis. This condition can occur in women of any age. It is more common in young girls that have not entered into puberty.
Some vaginal infections may not produce any symptoms. If you develop symptoms, the most common are:
- vaginal itching
- change in the amount and color of discharge from the vagina
- pain or burning during urination
- pain during intercourse
- vaginal bleeding or spotting
The symptoms of vaginal infections will also vary based on the cause of your infection. Examples include:
- Bacterial infections: These infections typically result in the development of a grayish-white or yellow discharge. This discharge may have a fish-like odor that is easily noticed after intercourse.
- Yeast infections: Yeast infections typically produce itching. If discharge is present is may be thick and white, and have the appearance of cottage cheese.
- Trichomoniasis: This condition can produce vaginal itching and odor. Discharge that results from this infection is typically greenish-yellow in color. The discharge may also be frothy.
Vaginal infections are not life-threatening conditions, however you should make an appointment to see your doctor if:
- you have never had a vaginal infection
- you have had a vaginal infection but are experiencing new symptoms
- you have had different or new sex partners
- you develop a fever
- you believe you may be pregnant
- you receive treatment for an infection and symptoms return following treatment
If you experience vaginal irritation, suspect a yeast infection, and you have had a previous diagnosis of yeast infections, you may not need to see your doctor. Yeast infections can be treated at home with over-the-counter vaginal antifungal medications, but if you are not sure, it’s always wise to check in with your doctor first.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose a vaginal infection. Your doctor will ask you about your health history, including current number of sexual partners and past infections or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Your doctor may also perform a pelvic exam. During this exam, your doctor may collect a sample of vaginal discharge. This sample will be sent to a laboratory for analysis. This will confirm what is causing your infection.
Treatment for vaginal infections will depend on what is causing your infection. Examples of treatments include:
- metronidazole tablets, metronidazole, or clindamycin cream or gel may be prescribed for a bacterial infection
- antifungal creams or suppositories may be prescribed for a yeast infection
- metronidazole or tinidazole tablets may be prescribed for trichomoniasis
- estrogen creams or tablets may be prescribed for vaginal atrophy
If your infection is caused by an irritant such as soap, your doctor will recommend changing your soap to reduce irritation.
If you develop a vaginal infection, treatment can be very effective for curing symptoms. Proper diagnosis of your infection is needed to ensure that the right treatment is prescribed.
Not all vaginal infections can be prevented. Using a condom during sexual intercourse will help prevent the spread of STIs and lower your risk of contracting one. Proper hygiene can also help prevent the development of some vaginal infections. When possible you should wear cotton underwear and pantyhose with a cotton crotch, to decrease your risk of vaginal inflammation and irritation that can result in some women, from less breathable fabrics.
- Vaginitis. (2012). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/vaginitis/hic_vaginitis.aspx
- Vaginitis. (2011). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vaginitis/DS00255
- Vulvovaginitis. (2012). National Library of Medicine. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001899/
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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