Vaginitis describes a few conditions that can cause infection or inflammation of your vagina. Vulvovaginitis describes inflammation of both your vagina and your vulva. Your vulva is the external part of your genitals.

Read on to learn more about what causes different types of vaginal infections and what you can do about it.

Some vaginal infections may not produce any symptoms. If you do develop symptoms, the most common are:

The symptoms of vaginal infections will also vary based on the cause of your infection:

  • Bacterial infections typically cause grayish-white or yellow discharge. This discharge may have a fish-like odor that’s easily noticed after sex.
  • Yeast infections typically produce itching. If discharge is present, it may be thick and white and look like cottage cheese.
  • Trichomoniasis is a condition that can produce vaginal itching and odor. Discharge from this infection is typically greenish-yellow and may be frothy.

Vaginal infections aren’t life-threatening conditions. However, you should make an appointment to see your doctor if you:

  • have never had a vaginal infection before
  • have had a vaginal infection but are experiencing new symptoms
  • have had different or new sexual partners
  • develop a fever
  • believe you may be pregnant
  • have symptoms that return after treatment

If you experience vaginal irritation and have been diagnosed with yeast infections in the past, you may not need to see your doctor.

Yeast infections can be treated at home with over-the-counter vaginal antifungal medications. However, if you’re not sure that you have a yeast infection, it’s always wise to check with your doctor.

Vaginal infections can have several causes. If you develop a vaginal infection, your doctor will diagnose and treat your infection based on its cause.

Common causes of vaginal infections include:

  • Bacterial infections. Certain bacteria are commonly found in your vagina. An overgrowth of these bacteria can cause bacterial vaginosis.
  • Yeast infections. Yeast infections are usually caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. Many things, including antibiotics, can reduce the number of antifungal bacteria in your vagina. This reduction can lead to an overgrowth of fungi and cause 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 after menopause. It can also develop during other times in your life when your estrogen levels decline, such as while breastfeeding. Reduced hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness. These can lead to vaginal inflammation.
  • Irritants. Soaps, body washes, perfumes, and vaginal contraceptives can all irritate your vagina. This can cause inflammation. Tight-fitting clothes may also cause heat rashes that irritate your vagina.

In some cases, your doctor may not be able to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as nonspecific vulvovaginitis. It can occur in women of any age, but it’s more common in young girls that haven’t entered puberty.

To diagnose a vaginal infection, your doctor will ask you about your health history. They’ll also typically ask about your sexual health such as your current number of sexual partners and your history of past vaginal 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. They’ll send this sample to a laboratory for analysis. This can help your doctor learn what’s causing your infection.

Treatment for vaginal infections will depend on what’s causing your infection. For example:

  • Metronidazole tablets, cream, or gel, 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 a different product to reduce irritation.

Not all vaginal infections can be prevented. Using a condom during sexual intercourse will help prevent the spread of STIs. It will also lower your risk of contracting them.

Proper hygiene can also help prevent some vaginal infections.

When possible, you should wear cotton underwear and pantyhose with a cotton crotch. This can lower your risk of developing vaginal inflammation and irritation. Some women develop inflammation and irritation from wearing less breathable fabrics.

Treatment for vaginal infections is generally very effective. Proper diagnosis will ensure that you receive the right treatment.

If you have any new or concerning symptoms, always speak to a doctor to ensure you get the right treatment.