Sometimes a vaginal infection may not present any symptoms. But other times, common symptoms of an infection include itching, changes in color or amount of discharge, and pain during urination.
Vaginitis refers to a few different conditions that can cause infection or inflammation of your vagina. The similar umbrella term vulvovaginitis describes inflammation of both your vagina and your vulva, the external part of your genitals.
Vaginal infections can have plenty of different causes, and they’re fairly common. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says up to a third of people with vaginas will develop vaginitis at some point in life.
These infections can happen at any time, but they’re most common during your reproductive years, or your late teens to early 40s.
You can develop a 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), though certain types of sexual activity can sometimes factor in — more details on that below.
Read on to learn more about the main types of vaginitis, plus their symptoms, causes, and tips for getting treatment and relief.
Vaginal infections don’t always cause noticeable symptoms.
If you do develop symptoms, you’ll likely notice some of these common ones:
- 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 might have just one or a few of the symptoms listed above. If your symptoms don’t go away within a few days, or if they get worse, it’s important to connect with a healthcare professional to get a 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.
Types of vaginal infections
Vaginal infections share a lot of the same symptoms, which can make it harder to recognize exactly what’s going on.
That said, each type of infection does involve a few unique symptoms:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV often causes a thin grayish-white, greenish, or yellow discharge. This discharge can have a fish-like odor that tends to become stronger after penetrative vaginal sex. You may not notice much itching.
- Yeast infections. These commonly involve vaginal and vulval itching, soreness, and burning. With yeast infections, you might also notice swelling in the labia, or the folds of skin on the outside of your vagina. Any discharge will usually be white and lumpy, with a texture that some say resembles cottage cheese.
- Trichomoniasis. This infection typically causes both vaginal itching and a fish-like odor. Along with a greenish-yellow, frothy discharge, you might also notice swelling, irritation, and inflammation 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. This isn’t an infection, exactly, but it can increase your chances of developing vaginal infections and UTIs. With atrophic vaginitis, you might notice signs that resemble symptoms of other infections, like vaginal itching, burning, dryness, and changes in discharge.
Treatment for vaginal infections will depend on what caused the infection.
A doctor or clinician may prescribe:
- metronidazole (in tablet, cream, or gel form) or clindamycin (in cream or gel form) to treat a bacterial infection
- antifungal creams or suppositories to treat a yeast infection. You can also purchase yeast infection medications without a prescription at your local pharmacy or drugstore, but you’ll want to connect with a healthcare professional if the infection doesn’t go away or if it keeps coming back.
- 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.
In basic terms, vaginal infections tend to develop when something affects the usual balance of bacteria and yeast in your vagina.
Here are the common causes of vaginal infections by infection type:
- Bacterial infections. An overgrowth of certain bacteria naturally found in your vagina can cause BV. While BV isn’t considered an STI, sexual contact — including hand-to-genital, oral, and penetrative vaginal sex — can lead to bacteria overgrowth and increase your chances of developing BV.
- 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 all 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
evidencesuggests you can also contract it through shared bathwater. Other rare (but possible) methods of transmission include damp toilet seats, pools, and shared towels or damp clothing.
- Vaginal atrophy. This condition generally develops after menopause, but it can also happen when you’re nursing or any other time when you experience a drop in estrogen levels. Reduced hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness, which can lead to vaginal inflammation.
- Douching. Flushing your vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, baking soda, iodine, or other antiseptic ingredients might seem like a good way to keep it clean. But the truth is that your vagina can keep itself clean. This practice actually reduces healthy bacteria in your vagina, making infections more likely.
- Soap, body wash, and perfume. Washing your vagina with soap and body wash, or spraying it with perfume, can also disrupt its natural pH. While it’s absolutely OK to rinse your vulva and vagina with plain water, any other product or fragrance can kill healthy bacteria in your vagina and make infection more likely.
- Spermicidal contraceptives. This method of birth control might 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 lead to vaginal irritation and inflammation, and they can make vaginal infections more likely.
- Tight-fitting or synthetic clothing. Underwear and bottoms that can’t “breathe” can cause vaginal irritation by trapping moisture and preventing airflow, which can make infections more likely. Wearing very tight bottoms, or leaving on wet bottoms after a workout or swim, can have a similar effect.
- Detergent and fabric softener. Noticed symptoms shortly after changing your laundry products? Scented detergent and fabric softener can also affect vaginal pH and contribute to yeast infections.
In some cases, a healthcare professional might not be able to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as nonspecific vulvovaginitis. It can occur in vagina-havers of any age, but it’s more common in young people who haven’t entered puberty.
A doctor or clinician can help diagnose a vaginal infection.
You can also use an at-home vaginal pH test, which you can find online or in some drugstores, to help identify a yeast infection or BV.
If you regularly get vaginal infections, especially the same type of infection, a doctor or clinician may ask questions to help diagnose the infection and narrow down the cause.
They might ask:
- about your health history, including any history of vaginal infections
- if you douche or wash your vagina with soap
- about your number of sexual partners
- whether you use condoms during vaginal sex
- if you use scented period products
- about symptoms of other health conditions
Depending on your symptoms, they might also:
- perform a pelvic exam to look for irritation and inflammation
- collect a sample of vaginal discharge to send out for analysis
- swab your cervix to test for STIs, like gonorrhea or chlamydia
- take a urine sample to test for other STIs
Yeast infections and BV share some symptoms, which makes it pretty easy to confuse one for the other.
This can pose a problem when it comes to getting the right treatment. Yeast infections don’t always require professional medical treatment and can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) products. BV, on the other hand, often requires treatment with antibiotics, which you can only get with a prescription.
This chart can help you tell the two apart.
|often causes a fish-like smell, especially after vaginal sex
|usually doesn’t cause an odor
|thin and watery, sometimes foamy
|thick and clumpy
|grayish or greenish
|you may not notice any change
|inflamed, reddish, or lighter or darker in color, often with a white coating around the outside of your vagina
|Itching and burning
|not necessarily, though you might notice itching if you have more discharge
|very common, especially during urination
|often clears up with OTC treatment
Not all vaginal infections can be prevented, but these tips can help reduce your chances of developing one:
- Avoid using scented period products, including tampons, pads, and liners.
- Avoid douching, vaginal deodorants, and any scented sprays or perfumes on or in your vagina.
- Bathe in plain water only, since bubble bath and scented body washes can affect vaginal pH. Looking for vagina-friendly cleansers? Check out our guide.
- Wash sex toys after each use, according to their care instructions. Avoid sharing sex toys before cleaning them.
- Wear cotton underwear, or underwear with a cotton crotch, to help improve airflow and prevent vaginal irritation and inflammation. Change your underwear at least once each day, or after exercising.
- Stick to tights, leggings, pantyhose, and workout bottoms that have a cotton crotch.
- Change out of swimsuits and damp workout gear as soon as possible to help prevent excess moisture.
- Switch to an unscented detergent, or one designed for sensitive skin, and skip the perfumed fabric softener.
Using condoms during sex can also help lower your chances of developing a vaginal infection, even though vaginal infections aren’t considered STIs.
Remember, condoms don’t just protect against STIs — they also help prevent changes in vaginal pH that could shift 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 spermicidal condoms can cause irritation, too.
- Always use a new condom for vaginal penetration after anal sex.
Looking for a new brand or type of condom? You’ll find a number of options here.
Some vaginal infections may clear up without treatment from a healthcare professional, especially when you help the infection on its way with home remedies or OTC medications.
That said, infections won’t always improve on their own. You’ll want to make an appointment with your doctor or clinician if you:
- have never had a vaginal infection before
- had a vaginal infection in the past, but you’re having new or different symptoms
- have a vaginal pH
- have symptoms that don’t improve with OTC treatment
- believe you could have been exposed to an STI
- notice yellow or bloody discharge, or discharge with a foul odor
- have other symptoms, including vomiting, fever, or low back and stomach pain
- have difficulty urinating or need to urinate more than usual
If you’ve had a yeast infection before and you recognize the signs, you might not need to make an appointment. You can often treat yeast infections at home with OTC medications.
That said, it never hurts to connect with a doctor or clinician if you get them often. They may be able to prescribe more effective treatment and help you narrow down the cause. You’ll also want to make an appointment if you have any doubts about the type of infection you have.
It’s always recommended to get treatment from a doctor or clinician for any vaginal infection if you’re pregnant or believe you could be pregnant. Untreated vaginal infections can get worse, and some can lead to complications during pregnancy and delivery.
While some vaginal infections clear up with home remedies, OTC treatments, and time, you can’t always treat a vaginal infection at home. Some infections require antibiotics or prescription antifungal medications.
A healthcare professional can offer more guidance on finding an effective treatment and preventing future infections if you have:
- any new or concerning symptoms
- symptoms that don’t go away
- an infection that keeps coming back
Untreated vaginal infections can cause plenty of discomfort, but they usually aren’t serious. Once you get the right diagnosis and treatment, they generally improve quickly.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.