What is it?
Vaginitis is an inflammation of the vagina that can result in discharge, itching and pain. The cause is usually a change in the normal balance of vaginal bacteria or an infection. Vaginitis can also result from reduced oestrogen levels after menopause.
The most common types of vaginitis are:
- Bacterial vaginosis. This type of vaginitis results from overgrowth of one of several organisms normally present in your vagina, upsetting the natural balance of vaginal bacteria.
- Yeast infections. A naturally occurring fungus called Candida albicans usually causes this type of vaginitis. An estimated three out of four women will have a yeast infection in their lifetimes.
- Trichomoniasis. This type is caused by a parasite and is commonly transmitted by sexual intercourse.
- Atrophic vaginitis. This type results from reduced estrogen levels after menopause. The vaginal tissues become thinner and drier, which may lead to itching, burning or pain.
Treatment depends on the type of vaginitis you have.
Vaginitis symptoms may include:
- Change in color, odour or amount of discharge from your vagina
- Vaginal itching or irritation
- Pain during intercourse
- Painful urination
- Light vaginal bleeding
Additionally, you may have these signs and symptoms depending on the type of vaginitis:
- Bacterial vaginosis. You may develop a grayish-white, foul-smelling discharge. The odor, often described as fish-like, may be more obvious after sexual intercourse.
- Yeast infections. The main symptom is itching, but you may have a white, thick discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
- Trichomoniasis. This infection can cause a greenish yellow, sometimes frothy discharge.
The cause depends on the type of vaginitis you have.
Bacterial vaginosis results from an overgrowth of one of several organisms normally present in your vagina. Usually, "good" bacteria (lactobacilli) outnumber "bad" bacteria (anaerobes) in your vagina. But if anaerobic bacteria become too numerous, they upset the balance and bacterial vaginosis results. This type of vaginitis can spread during sexual intercourse, but it also occurs in people who aren't sexually active. Women with new or multiple sex partners, as well as women who douche or use an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control, have a higher risk of bacterial vaginosis.
Yeast infections occur when certain internal or external factors change the normal environment of your vagina and trigger an overgrowth of a microscopic fungus - the most common being C. albicans. A yeast infection isn't considered a sexually transmitted disease. Besides causing most vaginal yeast infections, C. albicans also causes infections in other moist areas of your body, such as in your mouth (thrush), skin folds and fingernail beds. The fungi can also cause diaper rash.
Factors that increase your risk of yeast infections include:
- Medications, such as antibiotics and steroids
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Hormonal changes, such as those associated with pregnancy, birth control pills or menopause
Bubble baths, vaginal contraceptives, damp or tightfitting clothing, and feminine hygiene products, such as sprays and deodorants, don't cause yeast infections, but they may increase your susceptibility to infection.
Trichomoniasis is a common sexually transmitted disease caused by a microscopic, one-celled parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. This organism spreads during sexual intercourse with someone who already has the infection. The organism usually infects the urinary tract in men, but often causes no symptoms in men. Trichomoniasis typically infects the vagina in women.
Vaginal sprays, douches, perfumed soaps, scented detergents and spermicidal products may cause an allergic reaction or irritate the delicate skin of your vulva and vagina. Vaginal itching and burning can also result from thinning of the vaginal lining caused by a drop in your hormone levels after natural menopause or surgical removal of your ovaries.
Generally, vaginal infections don't cause serious complications. In pregnant women, however, both bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis have been associated with premature deliveries and low birth weight babies. Women infected with trichomoniasis or bacterial vaginosis are also at a greater risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
To diagnose your condition, your doctor may review your history of vaginal infections or sexually transmitted diseases and conduct a pelvic examination. Your doctor may take a sample of a cervical or vaginal discharge for laboratory analysis. This sample can confirm what kind of vaginitis you have.