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Common Types of Vaginal Infections
Burning, itching, and an unpleasant odor are just some of the common symptoms of vaginal infections. But treatments vary by condition, so it’s important to know which type of vaginal infection you have.
Vaginal infections and vaginitis, or inflammation of the vagina, are very common — so much so that most women will experience one or the other, and likely both, during their lifetime. Symptoms of either a vaginal infection or vaginitis may include vaginal discharge, itching, burning, pain, and a strong odor. While some vaginal infections are caused by sexually transmitted diseases, other very common ones are not. It is also true that some women seem to be more prone to vaginal infections than others for reasons that are not entirely obvious.
What Upsets the Normal Vaginal Ecosystem
A normal, healthy vagina contains bacteria and sometimes yeast without necessarily having an infection. But certain things can change the environment in the vagina, enabling bacterial or yeast overgrowth and causing symptoms. These include:
• Douching, or rinsing the vagina with water or other liquid
• Female hormone level changes
• Taking antibiotics
• Vaginal intercourse
• Pregnancy and breastfeeding
• While not all of these can be avoided, douching is unnecessary and potentially harmful.
The Most Common Types of Vaginal Infections
There are three very common types of vaginal infections: yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection.
The most common type of vaginitis, a yeast infection is caused by one of the many types of fungus known as candida. There are many species of yeast, or candida — Candida albicans is the most common. Normally, candida live harmlessly in your body in small numbers, including in the vagina. But under certain conditions, an overgrowth of candida can occur, causing a vaginal infection.
Those conditions might include hormone level changes due to pregnancy, birth control pills, or menstruation. Some other conditions that raise the risk of vaginal yeast infections include having frequent or chronic high blood sugar and having lowered immunity because of a medical condition such as HIV or AIDS.
Symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection include a thick, white discharge that some women describe as resembling cottage cheese. Yeast infections also can cause vaginal itching and redness of the vulva (the lips of the external female genital area) and vagina.
Along with yeast, “friendly” bacteria called lactobacilli live in the vagina. When the number of lactobacilli gets too low, it can trigger a condition called bacterial vaginosis (BV). Why bacteria levels change is not known, but the normal lactobacilli can be replaced by other, infection-causing bacteria.
Gardnerella is the bacteria most often associated with bacterial vaginosis. It is the lack of lactobacilli and overgrowth with these other bacteria that cause the symptoms of infection. With bacterial vaginosis, a woman may see a thick or whitish discharge or one that is slippery and clear. It is not likely to itch or burn. A fishy odor may be noticeable, especially during intercourse.
Of the three most common vaginal infections, trichomonas vaginitis, also called trichomoniasis, is the only one that is a true sexually transmitted infection. Commonly called “trich,” it is caused by a single-celled parasite, Trichomonas vaginalis, and is passed from partner to partner during intercourse. The symptoms of trichomoniasis are similar to other vaginal infections: burning, irritation, redness, and swelling of the vulva, with a yellow-gray or greenish vaginal discharge, possibly with a fishy odor. Some women also experience pain during urination.
Other Conditions That Affect the Vagina
Other common vaginal infections and causes of vaginal itching include:
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause inflammation of the vagina. Some women will have a discharge with chlamydia and some will not. If the infection spreads beyond the vagina and cervix, women may experience bleeding between periods or after vaginal intercourse. Sexually active women up to age 26 should be tested annually for chlamydia because it so often comes without symptoms and can linger and do a fair amount of damage to fertility.
Gonorrhea is another, highly contagious sexually transmitted infection that often doesn’t cause any symptoms but can cause vaginal discharge, pain during urination, and pain during vaginal sex. Women who have gonorrhea often also have chlamydia, so a woman who tests positive for one of these bacterial infections will often also be treated for the other.
Noninfectious vaginitis occurs when the skin around the vagina becomes sensitive to an irritant, such as scented tampons, perfumed soaps, or fabric softeners. This is not an infection, and the solution is simple: Not to be exposed to whatever you are having a reaction to.
Another form of noninfectious vaginitis is called atrophic vaginitis, and it typically occurs when female hormone levels decrease around the time of menopause, and the vaginal walls become thinner, drier, and less flexible.
Vulvodynia: Persistent Pain of the Vulva
In vulvodynia women have chronic pain or discomfort of the vulva without a known cause. The symptoms are similar to vaginal infections: burning, stinging, rawness, soreness, and swelling. Symptoms may be constant or occasional.
Viruses also can cause vaginal infections. Most viruses that directly affect the vagina are spread through sexual contact. The herpes simplex virus is a common cause of viral vaginosis. Symptoms include pain in the genital area from lesions or sores. Most of the time, you can see the sores on the vulva or vagina, but they can also be hidden and seen only during an examination by your gynecologist.
Treatment for Vaginal Infections
All of these conditions can be treated, but it’s important to know which type of infection or other condition you have so it can be treated correctly.
Yeast medication is available over the counter if you are certain that it is a yeast infection but sometimes women think they have a yeast infection and it is actually something else. If you try over-the-counter medications and they don’t work, you should see a doctor.