Vaginal infections are one of the most common types of infection in the world. More than 80% of women will experience some type of vaginal infection during their lives, so if you haven't gotten one yet, you probably will. Vaginal infections are easy to catch, so you shouldn't be ashamed if you do have one. Treatment is quick and easy and health risks associated with most vaginal infections are low. If you think that you may have some symptoms of a vaginal infection, visit with your health care provider to find out.
What is a Vaginal Infection?
Vaginal infections are the most common gynecological complaint in the United States. There are several types of vaginal infection and each must be treated with the appropriate medication in order to be properly cured. Also called vulvovaginitis, symptoms of vaginal infections are typically similar, and thus infections can easily be confused for one another. It is important to be diagnosed by a professional if you are unsure what type of vaginal infection you may have.
Most vaginal infections are caused by an imbalance in the bacteria present in your vagina. Normally, your vagina will maintain a healthy balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria. If, for some reason, bad bacteria begin to outnumber the good bacteria, you will probably get some form of vaginal infection. Some vaginal infections aren't caused by bacteria but by a fungus, which grows inside your vagina.
Imbalance in bacteria can be caused by direct exposure to bad bacteria or hormonal changes. STDs, pregnancy, menopause, illness, and stress are all common causes of vaginal infections. Certain soaps, clothing, and improper diet can also cause infection.
Types of Vaginal Infections
There are many kinds of vaginal infection. Most are harmless but a few will require extra care from a physician. It is important that you be treated for the right vaginal infection, or it will only get worse.
- Bacterial Vaginosis
- Commonly referred to as BV, bacterial vaginosis accounts for 40% of all vaginal infections in the United States. The cause of bacterial vaginosis is not completely clear, though it is definitely due to some sort of bacterial imbalance in your vagina. Vaginal bacterial infections can be sexually transmitted, but can also be caused by douches and IUDS. It can sometimes be hard to diagnose, because 50% of sufferers will exhibit no symptoms of bacterial vaginosis. If you do experience symptoms they will likely include itching, irritation, and redness. Other common symptoms include a gray, white, or smelly discharge from the vagina.
- Yeast Infection
- Yeast infections are by far the most common type of vaginal infection. A vaginal yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of a fungus called Candida albicans. The candida yeast infection is not transmitted sexually, but is caused by baths, damp or tight clothes, or excess moisture in the vagina. Vaginal yeast infection symptoms often include inflammation, itching, and continued irritation. Other yeast infections signs include: pain during intercourse, frequent urination, and a thick, chunky, white discharge from your vagina.
Menopause and Vaginal Infections
Menopause is often a major cause of vaginal infections. Fluctuating hormone levels can lead to the bacteria in your vagina going haywire. This in turn results in bad bacteria and fungi may be able to grow. Vaginal infections, especially yeast infections, are one of the main symptoms of menopause.
As your estrogen levels decline during menopause, your vagina will become thinner and weaker. This allows the walls of your vagina to be easily irritated during intercourse, leaving tiny scars or cuts where bacteria can flourish. Those women using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) will also be at increased risk of vaginal infections. Since higher levels of estrogen can cause increased vaginal discharge, leaving your vagina damp and moist, yeast and bacteria are given prime conditions in which to grow.
If you are menopausal, it is likely that you will suffer from another type of vaginal irritation, called vaginal dryness. This will leave you feeling itchy and irritated, but it can be treated through medicated creams and suppositories.
Consequences of Vaginal Infections
Most vaginal infections present no risk to your health, though they can be quite uncomfortable. However, bacterial vaginosis and pregnancy are not a healthy combination. If you are pregnant, bacterial vaginosis has been linked with preterm birth.
It is also important that you don't confuse a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis with a more serious sexually transmitted disease. Trichomoniasis produces symptoms that are similar to other vaginal infections, but it is much more serious and requires specific treatment.
Treatment for Vaginal Infections
Simple treatments exist for both bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. Some treatments are available over-the-counter and can be taken in the privacy of your own home. Treatment courses are generally short.
- Bacterial Vaginosis: Cures for bacterial vaginosis are available only by prescription. Bacterial vaginosis treatment usually consists of antibiotics, such as metronidazole or clindamycin. Treatment is usually in oral or cream form.
- Yeast Infections: Yeast infection treatment comes in cream or suppository form. If you are sure you have a yeast infection, these can be treated at home with over-the-counter medication. Creams like Monistat or Gyne-Lotrimin work quickly to relieve symptoms of a yeast infection.
A variety of alternative treatments exist to help cure bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. You may want to try a few out before resorting to stronger medication.
- Tea Tree Oil: Tea tree oil suppositories are supposed to kill fungus or bacteria present in the vagina. Only try this treatment with advice from a certified professional.
- Yogurt: Plain, unpasteurized yogurt contains lactobacillus acidophilus, or "good" bacteria. Applying this type of yogurt directly into the vagina, using a small spoon, spatula or an old vagianl cream applicator, at night for three to seven nights should help restore the balance of bacteria in your vagina. Just be sure to wear a pad as it can get a bit messy.
For more information on vaginal infections, visit our Vaginal page.
Learn more about vaginal infections, such as bacterial vaginosis at STDs in Color.