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Yeast Infection & Vaginitis at a Glance
- Vaginitis is an irritation of the vulva or vagina.
- Yeast infections are one cause of vaginitis, but not the most common.
- Very common
- Easily treated
- Should be diagnosed by a health care provider
Nearly every woman gets vaginitis, an irritation of the vagina or vulva, at some point in her life. Sometimes it is caused by a yeast infection, but it also has many other causes. Yeast infections and vaginitis are some of the most common reasons why women see a health care provider. Many women have yeast infections or other kinds of vaginitis more than once. It usually is not serious. But it can be annoying and uncomfortable.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear women ask about yeast infections and other kinds of vaginitis. We hope you find the answers helpful, whether you think you may have a yeast infection or another kind of vaginitis, have been diagnosed with vaginitis, or are just curious about it.
What Is Vaginitis?
Vaginitis is an irritation of the vulva or vagina. It is very common.
Many women think any irritation of the vagina or vulva is caused by a yeast infection. Yeast infection is one cause of vaginitis. But there are several other common causes of vaginitis.
What Else Besides Yeast Infection Can Cause Vaginitis?
Vaginitis is caused by
- yeast infection
- bacterial vaginosis
- allergies and irritants
- lack of the hormone estrogen
Sometimes there is more than one cause.
Yeast Infection (Candidiasis)
Yeast infections are caused when a yeast called candida (CAN-di-duh) grows too much. Most people have small amounts of yeast in their mouths and intestines. Many healthy women have yeast in their vaginas. But sometimes this yeast grows too much and causes a yeast infection.
Yeast can grow too much when the normal condition of the vagina is changed by
- certain antibiotics
- certain drugs, such as cortisone
- a weak immune system
- normal changes in your hormone levels
- exposure to someone else's natural genital yeast/bacteria that reacts with your body chemistry
Not for Women Only
Men can also get yeast infections. Men with yeast infections may notice redness and irritation of the penis or scrotum. Although yeast infections are not contagious, contact with a partner may stimulate the yeast to grow too much.
Both women and men can get a yeast infection in the mouth or throat, or on the tongue. When this happens, it is called "thrush."
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
Healthy vaginas naturally have bacteria in them. Bacterial vaginosis is a condition caused by a change in the balance of different kinds of bacteria in the vagina. One of the most common kinds of bacteria is called gardnerella vaginalis.
Bacterial vaginosis is sometimes caused by sexual activity. It can upset the balance of normal bacteria that protect the vagina.
Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection. It is also know as "trich." Trich is one of the most common causes of vaginitis. Learn more about trich.
Allergies and Irritants
Some women are allergic to things put in the vagina. And some objects and chemicals left in the vagina may cause irritations. Both allergies and irritants can lead to vaginitis.
The vagina and vulva may have an allergy to or be irritated by
- "feminine hygiene" sprays
- scented panty liners, pads, or tampons
- perfumed soaps, bubble baths, or powders
- shampoos and hair conditioners
- scented or colored toilet paper
- laundry detergents (especially enzyme-activated "cold-water" formulas) and fabric softeners
- latex in diaphragms or condoms
- silicone in cervical caps or shields
- wearing tight pants, underwear, or pantyhose without a cotton crotch
- wearing wet bathing suits for long periods of time
- horseback riding
- rubbing against a bicycle seat
- hot tub and swimming pool water
Lack of Estrogen
Some women have a type of vaginitis called "atrophic vaginitis." Atrophic vaginitis is a vaginal irritation without a discharge. It is caused when a woman's level of estrogen falls.
Lowered estrogen levels happen during
Lowered levels of estrogen make vaginal tissue dry and thin. It may also cause spotting. Estrogen creams and oral medicine can help.
Vaginitis is called "recurrent" if a woman has it four or more times a year. It can be caused by
It may be hard to find the cause and clear it up. Having recurrent vaginitis can be very frustrating. See your health care provider regularly if you have it.
What Are the Symptoms of Vaginitis?
If you have vaginitis, your vagina or vulva may be red, irritated, or uncomfortable. You may have vaginal fluid come out of your vagina that is different from your usual discharge. The discharge may have an unpleasant smell. You also may have itching or burning in or around your vagina. Vaginal intercourse may be uncomfortable. And you may feel as if you need to urinate (pee) more often than usual.
With a yeast infection, discharge is usually thick, white, and odorless. You may also have a white coating in and around your vagina if you have a yeast infection.
With bacterial vaginosis, you may not have any symptoms. Or you may have a heavy vaginal discharge. It is usually grayish and foamy and has an unpleasant, "fishy" odor.
Normal Vaginal Fluids
It helps to know what your normal vaginal fluids are like, so you can know when there is a change.
Vaginal fluids keep the vagina moist and healthy. The fluids are either thick and whitish or slippery and clear. Normal vaginal fluids have little or no smell, and there is no itching or burning. Regular bathing can prevent unpleasant smells or other discomforts. It is normal for these fluids to discolor underwear.
The fluids come from the walls of your vagina and from your cervix. They leave the body through the vagina.
How much fluid you produce depends on the hormones that guide your menstrual cycle. Usually there is more fluid
You will have less fluid just before your period, while you breastfeed, and during menopause.
Is There a Treatment for Vaginitis?
Vaginitis is usually easy to treat. The type of treatment depends on
- what type of vaginitis you have
- how severe your symptoms are
- whether you are pregnant
For vaginitis caused by bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trich, your health care provider may prescribe creams, suppositories, vaginal tablets, or oral medicines. Some medicines for yeast infections are available without a prescription.
For vaginitis caused by an allergy or an irritant, the symptoms usually go away when you stop using the substance or object that is causing irritation. Sometimes you might need to use a cream to help clear up the problem. In rare, severe cases of allergic reactions, you may require emergency medical attention.
For vaginitis caused by low levels of estrogen, your health care provider may prescribe a cream with estrogen in it, or a vaginal ring that releases estrogen into your body.
Remember, vaginitis has little to do with how clean you are. Bathing or douching will not cure vaginitis. But good hygiene is an important part of being healthy. It includes washing your vulva daily with mild, perfume-free cleansers.
During Treatment for Vaginitis …
Tampons or Pads
In general, you should do what is most comfortable for you. If you insert treatment suppositories before going to bed, do not use tampons afterward during the night. Otherwise, the tampon may soak up the medicine. It's okay to use tampons during the day for your period — especially toward the end of treatment.
Some women use pads or panty liners to help keep the medicine from leaking onto clothing. Others find them irritating. If you are wondering what you should do, ask your health care provider for advice.
It is better not to have sex while you have vaginitis. Intercourse — or other kinds of sex play — may be uncomfortable or painful. Having sex may also make your symptoms worse and make your treatment less effective.
To make sure your treatment works
- Don't use anybody else's medicine. Even if your symptoms are like somebody else's, you may need different treatment.
- Don't use old medicine. It may not work anymore, and it may even make the infection worse.
- Use up your entire prescription — even if your symptoms have stopped. They may come back if you don't take all your medicine.
- Take your medicine even if you get your period. Some vaginitis infections can grow quickly in menstrual flow.
- Be sure to return for all your checkups.
Do I Need to See a Health Care Provider?
If you have had yeast infections in the past that have been diagnosed by a health care provider, and your symptoms are the same, you might try an over-the-counter medicine.
Otherwise, it is very important to see a health care provider if you think you have a yeast infection or another kind of vaginitis. Vaginitis isn't often a major health problem. But sometimes it can be serious.
Pregnant women with bacterial vaginosis have a higher risk of miscarriage, especially in the first trimester. Bacterial vaginosis is associated with premature delivery, low birth weight, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Vaginitis can also increase the risk for HIV infection. Other, more potentially dangerous infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia have symptoms just like vaginitis. Only a health care provider can find the cause and offer the right treatment.
You should see your health care provider whenever
- you have abnormal vaginal discharge and/or odor, irritation, bleeding, or pain
- your symptoms have not been diagnosed
- your treatment isn't working
Helping Your Health Care Provider Find the Cause
Where Can I Get Checked or Treated for Yeast Infections and Vaginitis?
Your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other clinics, private health care providers, and health departments offer tests and treatment for all types of vaginitis, including yeast infections.
Is Vaginitis Spread During Sex?
It depends on the cause of the vaginitis. "Trich" is easily passed between sex partners — same-sex as well as opposite-sex partners.
Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections cannot be sexually transmitted from one partner to another. However, genital contact with a large amount of yeast or bacteria can offset the body's natural balance. All kinds of bacteria are exchanged during sex and genital contact. It may be that the bacteria exchanged between partners, especially new partners, may cause an overgrowth of the bacteria that cause bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections in the vagina.
Vaginitis caused by irritants, allergies, or lack of estrogen are not passed during sex.
How Can I Prevent Vaginitis?
Don't have vaginal intercourse or share sexual fluids if
- you or your partner is being treated for bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, or a sexually transmitted infection
- you think either of you is infected
- condoms or female condoms are not available
Vaginitis develops more quickly when the vulva is moist. Be sure to
- Keep the area around your vulva as dry as possible.
- Wash your vulva regularly with mild soap and water.
- Rinse well and dry thoroughly after washing.
- Let towels dry before you use them again.
- Only use your own towels — don't share them.
- Avoid sitting around in a wet bathing suit.
Avoid anything you have found to irritate your vagina or vulva. And don't douche unless your health care provider advises it.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins