Vaginal infections: What every woman should know

Most women are unlucky enough to experience a vaginal infection at least once in their lifetime.

Though the symptoms can be uncomfortable, these infections usually aren't dangerous and can be treated easily.

Causes of infection

Several types of bacteria help protect the vagina from infections by creating an acidic environment that's unfriendly to germs. But when the vagina's protective environment is disrupted, germs that get inside can thrive.

According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), triggers that can upset the natural balance of the vagina include:

  • Sexual intercourse.
  • Birth control devices such as diaphragms.
  • Antibiotics.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Douching.
  • Damp underwear.
  • Tight pants.
  • Poor diet.
  • Vaginal products such as sprays and lubricants.

Treatment

Treatment for a vaginal infection depends on what's causing it. The most common culprits are bacteria, yeast and trichomoniasis.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common type of vaginal infection. Symptoms can include:

  • A strong fishy smell, especially after sex.
  • White or gray discharge.
  • Watery or foamy discharge.

BV is treated with antibiotics.

Yeast is a fungus that normally lives in the vagina but can cause problems when it grows too rapidly.

Symptoms of a yeast infection include:

  • Thick, white discharge resembling cottage cheese.
  • Pain, itching, burning, or redness around the vagina.
  • Odor of baking bread.

There are prescription and over-the-counter treatments for yeast infections. If you have never had a yeast infection before, get medical advice before buying medicine. If your symptoms don't go away after using an over-the-counter medicine, or if you get four or more yeast infections in a year, see your healthcare provider.

Trichomoniasis, or trich, is caused by a parasite that's transmitted during sex. Symptoms may include:

  • Green, yellow or gray discharge.
  • A bad smell.
  • Itching in or around the vagina.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Pain when urinating.

Your healthcare provider will give you a prescription to treat trich. Your sex partner must also be treated. Avoid sex until you've both finished treatment.

Prevention

To help prevent vaginal infections, ASHA and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offer these suggestions:

  • Avoid using feminine hygiene sprays, scented tampons and douches.
  • Wash your vaginal area every day with mild soap. Rinse well and pat dry.
  • Don't wear tight pants, and avoid pantyhose in hot weather. Always wear underpants with a cotton crotch.
  • After using the toilet, always wipe from front to back. This helps prevent the transfer of bacteria from your rectal area to your vagina.
  • Limit your number of sex partners.
  • See your doctor if you notice an unusual discharge or smell. This is especially important if you may be pregnant, as some untreated vaginal infections can lead to premature labor.

reviewed 2/6/2019

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Disclaimer

This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.