Vaginitis is a name for swelling, itching, burning or infection in the vagina that can be caused by several different germs. The most common kinds of vaginitis are bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast, a fungus. Sometimes trichomoniasis (or trich, pronounced “trick”) is called vaginitis too. Trichomoniasis is caused by parasitic protozoa called Trichomonas vaginalis.
Vaginitis is very common. If you are like most women, you will have some kind of vaginitis at least once in your life.
How is it transmitted?
The healthy vagina has a balance of many different kinds of bacteria. “Good” bacteria help keep the vagina a little bit acidic. This keeps “bad” bacteria from growing too fast. A healthy vagina makes a mucus-like discharge that may look clear or a little milky, depending on the time of a woman’s monthly cycle. When the balance between the “good” bacteria and the “bad” bacteria is upset, “bad” bacteria grow too fast and cause infections. Discharge may have a funny color or a bad smell. Sometimes these “bad” bacteria and other germs that cause vaginitis can be spread through sex.
Other things can upset the balance of the vagina too, like antibiotics (medicines), douching, tight pants, damp underwear, poor diet, vaginal products (sprays, lubricants, birth control devices), and pregnancy.
What are the symptoms of vaginitis?
The signs or symptoms of vaginitis are different, depending on the germ that you have.
- A pasty vaginal discharge that may appear white or gray with a fishy odor that is a common symptom that may be observed during a BV infection.
- Many women may be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed.
- Abnormal discharge, itching, irritation and redness of the vulva
- Possible burning upon urination due to urine passing over the inflamed vulva
- Discomfort and inconvenience may vary considerably
- Other STIs such as HSV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea may cause similar symptoms (such as vaginal discharge)
- Often will have no symptoms
- Possible slight irritation, itching or redness on penis (balanitis)
- Other STIs such as HSV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea may cause similar symptoms
How can I find out if I have vaginitis?
If you have symptoms of vaginitis, see your healthcare provider for a correct diagnosis. To help your provider find out what you have:
- Schedule the exam when you do not have your monthly period.
- Don’t douche 24 hours before your exam.
- Don’t use vaginal sprays 24 hours before your exam.
- If you have sex less than 24 hours before the exam, use condoms.
How is vaginitis treated?
The treatment will depend on which germ is causing the infection. Your healthcare provider will find the right treatment after you are diagnosed.
What does it mean for my health?
Having BV has been associated with an increased risk in developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is a serious infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes. BV and trichomoniasis increase a woman’s risk of getting HIV if she is exposed to a partner with HIV. Having trichomoniasis or BV may also increase the chance that an HIV-infected woman passes HIV to her partner(s). Having BV or trichomoniasis while pregnant may put a woman at increased risk for some complications of pregnancy, including potentially having a baby born early or with low birth weight. Treatment of BV and/or trich might help reduce the risk of these complications. On the other hand, having a yeast infection during pregnancy does not typically pose any risk to the baby or the pregnancy.
How can you reduce your risk?
- Wash your vaginal area every day. Use mild soap. Rinse well and pat dry.
- Wipe your vagina and anus from front to back.
- Don’t douche; this can upset the natural balance of the vagina.
- Take antibiotics only when needed. Antibiotics can kill “good” bacteria.
- Limit the number of your sex partners. Always use latex condoms with a new partner or with multiple partners.
- Wear cotton or cotton-lined underpants.
- Don’t wear tight pants and don’t wear pantyhose in hot weather.
- See your healthcare provider if you have any unusual discharge or smell.
Should I talk to my partner about vaginitis?
This depends. Women who are not sexually active may develop BV or yeast infections. Remember that most of the time these infections are caused by an upset in the balance of bacteria that is normal in the vagina. Trichomoniasis, on the other hand, is sexually transmitted and it will be important for sex partners to be treated, so it is not passed back and forth. It is important for partners to be treated even if they do not show any symptoms.