Vaginitis is a word used to describe various disorders that cause inflammation or infection of the vagina. These can be caused by organisms like yeast, or by irritations from chemicals or sprays. In some cases, vaginitis results from organisms that are passed between sexual partners, vaginal dryness, and lack of estrogen.
First and foremost, is vaginal discharge normal?
The vagina has a way of telling you if everything is okay and that is through the discharge. The vagina normally produces about 4ml of discharge on a daily that is described as clear or slightly cloudy, non-irritating, and with very little odor. When a woman is approaching menstruation day, the amount and consistency of the discharge changes.
Discharge with an odor or that is irritating, is usually considered an abnormal discharge. The irritation might be itchy or a burning sensation, or both. The burning sensation could feel like a Urinary Tract Infection. The itching may be present at any time of the day, but most bothersome at night. These symptoms are often made worse by sexual intercourse which may be notably painful as well.
Each of these vaginal infections can have different symptoms or no symptoms at all. Diagnosis can even be tricky for an inexperienced clinician as sometimes, more than one type of vaginitis can be present at the same time.
To better understand the seven major causes of vaginitis, let’s look briefly at each one of them and how they are treated.
Candida or yeast vaginitis
Yeast infections are caused by one of the many species of fungus called candida. Candida is naturally present in the vagina, as well as in the mouths and digestive tracts of both men and women. An infection can occur when the occurring candida increases in number to cause bothersome symptoms. Yeast infections produce a thick, white vaginal discharge.
Yeast infections usually cause the vagina and the vulva to be very itchy and red, sometimes swollen even before the onset of the thick discharge. Some may feel a burning sensation during urination.
Although “yeast” is the name most women know, bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection in women of reproductive age. Bacterial vaginosis will often cause an abnormal smelling vaginal discharge. A thin and milky discharge described as having a “fishy” odor. This odor may become more noticeable after intercourse.
Some women will show no symptoms at all, and the vaginitis is only discovered during a routine gynecological exam. Hence the need to have regular checkups.
Bacterial Vaginosis is not sexually transmitted but is seen often in sexually active people. Having multiple sex partners and douching can increase your chances of getting it. When not treated, it can increase your chances of getting STIs like HIV and gonorrhea.
Trichomoniasis vaginitis is caused by a single-celled organism known as protozoa. When this organism infects the vagina, it can cause a frothy, greenish-yellow discharge whichmay have a foul smell. Women with this infection may complain of itching and soreness of the vagina and vulva, as well as a burning sensation during urination. There can also be discomfort in the lower abdomen and vaginal pain during intercourse. These symptoms may be worse after the menstrual period.
Many women, however, do not develop any symptoms. It is important to note that this type of vaginitis can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. For treatment to be effective, the sexual partner(s) must be treated at the same time as the patient. They should abstain from sexual intercourse for several days after all sex partners have been treated.
Chlamydia or gonorrhea vaginitis
Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in young women (18 to 35 years) who have multiple sexual partners. Unfortunately, most women with chlamydia infection do not have symptoms, making diagnosis difficult. A vaginal discharge is sometimes present with this infection, but not always.
A woman might experience light bleeding, especially after intercourse and she may have pain in the lower abdomen and pelvis. Routine chlamydia screening is recommended for sexually active females aged 24 and younger, and also at any age if you have multiple sexual partners, or are at risk.
While chlamydia infections are treatable with antibiotic medications, the best treatment for chlamydia is prevention. Correct and consistent use of a condom will decrease your risk of contracting not only chlamydia but other sexually transmitted infections. Gonorrhea, another STI, can also cause vaginitis symptoms. Sex partners should be tracked and treated appropriately to avoid re-infection.
Viral vaginitis: Viruses are a common cause of vaginitis. A common one is herpes. These infections are spread through sexual contact. The primary symptom of herpes vaginitis is pain associated with sores. These sores are usually visible on the vulva or the vagina but occasionally inside the vagina and can only be seen during a gynecologic exam. Herpes could also affect the mouth if oral sex is performed.
Human papillomavirus (HPV): Another source of viral vaginal infection is the Human papillomavirus (HPV). Sometimes referred to as genital warts, also can be transmitted by sexual intercourse. This virus can cause painful warts to grow in the vagina, rectum, vulva, or groin. These warts usually are white to gray, but they may be pink or purple.
However, visible warts are not always present. The virus may only be detected when a Pap test is abnormal. Many of the infections that cause vaginitis can be spread between men and women during sexual intercourse. Use of a barrier contraceptive, such as a condom, can help reduce your risk (does not offer 100 percent protection) of contracting these and more serious infections, such as HIV, which can lead to AIDS.
It is important to see your healthcare professional if there has been a change in the amount, color, or smell of the discharge that persists beyond a few days. Self medication is highly discouraged as the vaginal PH is often affected by antibiotics.