Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Infections (Symptoms, Treatment And Causes)

Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Infections (Symptoms, Treatment And Causes)

Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Infections

 What is a vaginal infection (vaginitis)?

Vaginitis refers to a few different conditions that can cause infection or inflammation of your vagina. The similar umbrella term vulvovaginitis describes inflammation of both your vagina and your vulva, the external part of your genitals.

Vaginal infections can have plenty of different causes, and they’re fairly common. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says up to a third of people with vaginas will develop vaginitis at some point in life.

These infections can happen at any time, but they’re most common during your reproductive years, or your late teens to early 40s.

You can develop a vaginal infection without having penetrative sex, or any other type of sex. In other words, vaginitis is not the same as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), though certain types of sexual activity can sometimes factor in — more details on that below.

Read on to learn more about the main types of vaginitis, plus their symptoms, causes, and tips for getting treatment and relief.


Vaginal infections don’t always cause noticeable symptoms.

If you do develop symptoms, you’ll likely notice some of these common ones:

- vaginal itching and burning

- vaginal soreness and discomfort

- inflamed, flushed, or swollen skin around your vagina and vulva

- a change in the amount of vaginal discharge

- a change in the color of vaginal discharge

- pain or burning during urination

- pain during penetrative vaginal sex

- vaginal bleeding or spotting

You might have just one or a few of the symptoms listed above. If your symptoms don’t go away within a few days, or if they get worse, it’s important to connect with a healthcare professional to get a diagnosis and treatment.

You might also notice some of these symptoms, especially a painful or burning sensation while urinating, if you have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Here’s how to recognize a UTI.

Types of vaginal infections

Vaginal infections share a lot of the same symptoms, which can make it harder to recognize exactly what’s going on.

That said, each type of infection does involve a few unique symptoms:

Bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV often causes a thin grayish-white, greenish, or yellow discharge. This discharge can have a fish-like odor that tends to become stronger after penetrative vaginal sex. You may not notice much itching.

Yeast infections. These commonly involve vaginal and vulval itching, soreness, and burning. With yeast infections, you might also notice swelling in the labia, or the folds of skin on the outside of your vagina. Any discharge will usually be white and lumpy, with a texture that some say resembles cottage cheese.

Trichomoniasis. This infection typically causes both vaginal itching and a fish-like odor. Along with a greenish-yellow, frothy discharge, you might also notice swelling, irritation, and inflammation in your vagina and vulva. Other symptoms of trichomoniasis include pain during vaginal sex, lower abdominal pain, and burning and pain during urination.

Atrophic vaginitis. This isn’t an infection, exactly, but it can increase your chances of developing vaginal infections and UTIs. With atrophic vaginitis, you might notice signs that resemble symptoms of other infections, like vaginal itching, burning, dryness, and changes in discharge.

How are vaginal infections treated?

Treatment for vaginal infections will depend on what caused the infection.

A doctor or clinician may prescribe:

1. metronidazole (in tablet, cream, or gel form) or clindamycin (in cream or gel form) to treat a bacterial infection

2. antifungal creams or suppositories to treat a yeast infection. You can also purchase yeast infection medications without a prescription at your local pharmacy or drugstore, but you’ll want to connect with a healthcare professional if the infection doesn’t go away or if it keeps coming back.

3. metronidazole or tinidazole tablets to treat trichomoniasis

4. estrogen creams or tablets to help treat severe vaginal dryness and irritation associated with atrophic vaginitis

Healthcare professionals will usually also recommend avoiding irritants, such as strong or perfumed soap, scented tampons or pads, and douches.

What causes vaginal infections?

In basic terms, vaginal infections tend to develop when something affects the usual balance of bacteria and yeast in your vagina.

Here are the common causes of vaginal infections by infection type:

Bacterial infections. An overgrowth of certain bacteria naturally found in your vagina can cause BV. While BV isn’t considered an STI, sexual contact — including hand-to-genital, oral, and penetrative vaginal sex — can lead to bacteria overgrowth and increase your chances of developing BV.

Yeast infections. Yeast infections are usually caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. Various factors, including antibiotics, hormonal changes, a compromised immune system, and stress, can all reduce the number of antifungal bacteria in your vagina, leading to an overgrowth of yeast. This overgrowth can cause symptoms of a yeast infection.

Trichomoniasis. The protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis causes this infection. Most people contract trichomoniasis by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex without an internal or external condom. Still, some evidenceTrusted Source suggests you can also contract it through shared bathwater. Other rare (but possible) methods of transmission include damp toilet seats, pools, and shared towels or damp clothing.

Vaginal atrophy. This condition generally develops after menopause, but it can also happen when you’re nursing or any other time when you experience a drop in estrogen levels. Reduced hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness, which can lead to vaginal inflammation.

Douching. Flushing your vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, baking soda, iodine, or other antiseptic ingredients might seem like a good way to keep it clean. But the truth is that your vagina can keep itself clean. This practice actually reduces healthy bacteria in your vagina, making infections more likely.

Soap, body wash, and perfume. Washing your vagina with soap and body wash, or spraying it with perfume, can also disrupt its natural pH. While it’s absolutely OK to rinse your vulva and vagina with plain water, any other product or fragrance can kill healthy bacteria in your vagina and make infection more likely.

Spermicidal contraceptives. This method of birth control might come in gel, film, or suppository form. You insert it directly into your vagina, where it dissolves to kill sperm and prevent unwanted pregnancy. While spermicides work well for some people, they can lead to vaginal irritation and inflammation, and they can make vaginal infections more likely.

Tight-fitting or synthetic clothing. Underwear and bottoms that can’t “breathe” can cause vaginal irritation by trapping moisture and preventing airflow, which can make infections more likely. Wearing very tight bottoms, or leaving on wet bottoms after a workout or swim, can have a similar effect.

Detergent and fabric softener. Noticed symptoms shortly after changing your laundry products? Scented detergent and fabric softener can also affect vaginal pH and contribute to yeast infections.

In some cases, a healthcare professional might not be able to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as nonspecific vulvovaginitis. It can occur in vagina-havers of any age, but it’s more common in young people who haven’t entered puberty.

How can you prevent vaginal infections?

Not all vaginal infections can be prevented, but these tips can help reduce your chances of developing one:

Avoid using scented period products, including tampons, pads, and liners.

Avoid douching, vaginal deodorants, and any scented sprays or perfumes on or in your vagina.

Bathe in plain water only, since bubble bath and scented body washes can affect vaginal pH. Looking for vagina-friendly cleansers? Check out our guide.

Wash sex toys after each use, according to their care instructions. Avoid sharing sex toys before cleaning them.

Wear cotton underwear, or underwear with a cotton crotch, to help improve airflow and prevent vaginal irritation and inflammation. Change your underwear at least once each day, or after exercising.

Stick to tights, leggings, pantyhose, and workout bottoms that have a cotton crotch.

Change out of swimsuits and damp workout gear as soon as possible to help prevent excess moisture.

Switch to an unscented detergent, or one designed for sensitive skin, and skip the perfumed fabric softener.

Using condoms during sex can also help lower your chances of developing a vaginal infection, even though vaginal infections aren’t considered STIs.

Remember, condoms don’t just protect against STIs — they also help prevent changes in vaginal pH that could shift the balance of bacteria in your vagina.

A few things to keep in mind when choosing and using condoms:

Avoid using flavored condoms for vaginal sex.

Pre-lubricated or spermicidal condoms can cause irritation, too.

Always use a new condom for vaginal penetration after anal sex.

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