Vaginal Infections (Vaginitis)

Esta guía en Español

female gender symbolVaginal infections happen to women of all ages; to sexually active women, and to women who aren’t sexually active. Most women have a vaginal infection at least one time during their lives. Vaginal infections are actually the number one reason that adult women see their health care providers.

What is normal discharge?

Most girls notice a yellow or white stain on their underwear after they go through puberty. This is a normal fluid that helps clean and moisten your vagina. You are completely healthy and normal if your discharge is cloudy white, has no odor or has a slightly salty odor, increases in amount and becomes “stringy” (like egg whites) during the middle of your menstrual cycle when you’re ovulating, and is white or light yellow when it dries on underwear.

If you find that your normal discharge is annoying, you can wear panty liners/shields on your underwear. Also, to keep your vaginal discharge under control, make sure you wear cotton underwear (which absorbs moisture and lets air circulate). Take daily showers or baths and make sure that you wash your vulva (outside of your vaginal area) every day with mild soap, and then rinse and pat dry with a clean towel. Don’t use deodorized panty liners or deodorant sprays in your vaginal area.

If your discharge changes, it may be a sign that you have a vaginal infection and you need to see your health care provider.

What is a vaginal infection?

A vaginal infection is known medically as “vaginitis.” The 3 most common causes of vaginal infections are yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. Vaginal discharge may also occur if you have an infection in your cervix with gonorrhea or chlamydia. There are other causes of vaginal infections that are less common. Each type of vaginitis is caused by a different type of germ or organism, so each type must be treated differently.

What are the signs/symptoms of a vaginal infection?

If you have a vaginal infection, you may have any of the following:

  • Vaginal discharge that is different from normal
  • Vaginal odor (smell)
  • Vaginal itching
  • Pain or irritation when you urinate (pee)
  • Pain and/or burning with sexual intercourse

Most women have symptoms, but some women may have very mild or no symptoms at all. A health care provider may notice signs of a vaginal infection (such as discharge or an odor) during a routine pelvic exam and then test the vaginal fluid to see if there is an infection. It’s important to have regular check-ups with your health care provider so if you miss something, he/she may notice it.

What do I do if I think I have a vaginal infection?

If you have any of the symptoms of a vaginal infection, you should see your health care provider right away. Each kind of vaginal infection has different symptoms. It’s hard to know exactly which type of vaginal infection you have just by your symptoms alone, since many of the signs are similar. It’s also possible to have more than one type of vaginal infection at the same time. Only health care providers can find out if you definitely have a vaginal infection or an STI. You should be completely honest with your health care provider about what symptoms you have, such as odor, burning, or strange vaginal discharge, even if it is embarrassing. This way, your health care provider can make a correct diagnosis and prescribe the right treatment.

Can I douche if I have a vaginal infection?

No. You should never douche! Douching can cause infections by changing the normal balance of organisms in your vagina. Douching can also make an infection worse if you already have one, push the infection up into your uterus and fallopian tubes, or hide symptoms of a vaginal infection so it’s harder to diagnose. Other things that can cause vaginal infections are scented tampons, deodorant sprays, and harsh soaps. Your vagina cleans itself naturally. You don’t need to buy any special products, just wash the outside with mild soap and water, and pat dry.

How can a health care provider tell if I have a vaginal infection?

Your health care provider will use a cotton swab to take a sample of your vaginal discharge to look at it under a microscope and to check with pH paper or send the sample to the laboratory for special tests. This may mean just an external exam with Q-tip samples, or it may mean a vaginal exam with a speculum (a metal or plastic instrument inserted into your vagina and then slightly opened up in order to get a better look at your vagina and cervix). The tests are very simple and quick.

Does my health care provider check to see if I have a vaginal infection when he/she does my Pap test?

If the outward symptoms, such as discharge or odor are obvious enough, your health care provider will do some tests to see if you do have a vaginal infection. However, you should still make sure to tell your health care provider if you’re having symptoms. A Pap test is done to check for changes in the cells of your cervix that can lead to cervical cancer (not for diagnosing vaginitis), but sometimes signs of vaginitis show up on the Pap test results. If this happens, you may get a call or letter from your HCP letting you know that you have a vaginal infection along with treatment instructions.

What can I do to prevent vaginal infections?

The best way to prevent vaginal infections is to practice good feminine hygiene. Vaginal infections can happen more than once. You should always follow this advice:

  • Keep your vaginal area clean and dry. You should wash the outside of your vaginal area every day with mild soap and warm water, and then rinse well. Be sure to pat the area dry with a clean dry towel.
  • Don’t douche. Douching can upset the normal balance of organisms in your vagina, which can cause a vaginal infection, make an infection worse, or spread the infection further up into your reproductive organs (your uterus and/or fallopian tubes).
  • Don’t use perfumed soaps, perfumed bubble bath or gel, scented tampons, vaginal powders, or vaginal deodorant sprays. They can irritate your vagina and cause a vaginal infection. If your vaginal area is already irritated, you should not use scented toilet paper, spermicides, or harsh soaps.
  • Don’t wear tight or damp clothing, because they can keep moisture in and irritate your vagina. If you have to wear tight clothing, don’t wear it for a long time. Wear white cotton underwear. Avoid wearing underwear made of nylon and lycra. Cotton helps to absorb moisture and allows air to get through. If you wear pantyhose, remember to wear cotton underwear.
  • Practice safe sex. You shouldn’t have sex with someone with a sexually transmitted infection. No matter what, you should always use latex (or polyurethane) condoms to lessen your chance of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • If you use diaphragms, cervical caps, or any medication applicators, you need to make sure you clean them with warm water and soap and dry them well before storing them.

Other causes of vaginal infections: There are other causes of vaginal infections besides the 3 most common causes, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. Other possible causes may include sexually transmitted infections (STIs), a tampon left in too long, a congenital vaginal or uterus problem (something you have since birth, which is very rare), or an allergy or irritation from:

  • Spermicides
  • Vaginal hygiene products
  • Detergents
  • Fabric softeners

These products can cause irritation to the vagina, but when a health care provider does tests on your vaginal discharge, he/she can figure out if your infection is one of the 3 more common ones or if it has a different cause and treatment. You should always see your health care provider if you notice symptoms of a vaginal infection or your discharge is different for you.