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Many women are becoming healthier as the medical field finds new ways to focus on protecting the health of women. Women face weekly, monthly, and yearly changes in their own bodies. As women age, they become more likely to get infections, such as vaginitis, due to a lack of estrogen. Vaginitis is a condition that causes inflammation and/or infection of the vagina, and is also common in younger women. It is important to recognize the symptoms of these infections, and then seek help from your healthcare provider.


What is vaginitis?

Vaginitis is an inflammation of the vagina, which can affect women of all ages. There are several types of vaginitis, but symptoms of inflammation are usually the reason women visit their healthcare provider. It is important to take this key sign seriously. Vaginitis occurs when there is a change in the normal balance of yeast and bacterial organisms in the vagina. Each day, a small amount of white or translucent fluid should pass through the vagina. The discharge helps to keep the vaginal tissue moist. The fluid should be clear or white, and only a small amount. If this fluid changes color, odor, or consistency a woman should visit her provider for testing and diagnosis.


Signs and symptoms

Though the color and amount of vaginal discharge can change during the menstrual cycle, women should seek medical attention if the discharge appears to be much different than usual. Because symptoms vary from woman to woman, it is up to the patient to judge the severity and know her own medical history. It is always a good idea to contact your healthcare provider if you have any doubts about your health.


Symptoms can include "fish-like" odor, itchiness, discomfort, thick or "cottage cheese-like" discharge, inflammation, or increased discharge in the vaginal walls. A patient may feel one or many of these symptoms, depending on the severity of the infection or the type. Other symptoms include itching and burning, especially when urinating or having sex. Increased discharge may occur in middle-aged women, but if the color is suddenly green or dark yellow or has changed, an infection may be present. Also, women who have vaginal bleeding after menopause should notify their provider. Bleeding after menopause is often harmless, but it can be a sign of a more serious problem, such as cancer.

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Vaginal yeast infections are the most common type of vaginitis. They are caused by a fungus called Candida, which is normally present in small amounts in the vagina. When the normal bacterial balance is changed, yeast grows and causes irritation. The major symptom is a discharge that looks like cottage cheese. The vulva may be red or swollen. Like other infections, though, symptoms do not always appear.


The symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an unpleasant smell, mainly after intercourse and during the menstrual cycle. The discharge is usually thin, and white or gray in color. Patients often experience burning or itching outside of the vagina. Though women with BV experience increased discharge, there is generally little pain and it is also possible that there will be no symptoms at all. If you do experience any pain, contact your provider immediately.


Trichomoniasis (trick-a-mon-ia-sis) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) characterized by a frothy, gray or yellow-green discharge and genital itching. Women also experience burning with urination and sexual intercourse. Many women often think the first symptoms of trichomoniasis are a urinary tract infection and symptoms may not appear for several weeks. Women who are diagnosed with trichomoniasis are at increased risk for other STD infections.



There are several causes that affect the normal balance of bacteria and yeast in a woman's vagina. Changes in the balance can result from certain medicines, shifts in hormones levels (due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause), douching, spermicides, sex, and infection. Some irritation can come from chemicals in creams, sprays, and products such as scented tampons. It is also possible that organisms were transmitted during sex. Occasionally increased levels of stress can alter a woman's hormonal balance, therefore changing the bacterial balance. Risk factors also include women diagnosed with HIV because the immune system is more susceptible to infections.



If symptoms occur and you seek medical attention, your healthcare provider will take a sample of the vaginal discharge after a pelvic exam, run tests that help to discover the cause, and then decide on treatment. Because signs and symptoms vary with each patient, it is necessary to have a sample tested. Your healthcare provider will also ask you questions about your medical history. Usually, the tests can be completed in the office, but sometimes, the samples will need to be sent to a lab. The accuracy of the tests is generally high, and immediate action can be taken once the results have arrived.


How is it treated?

Treatment for vaginitis depends on the type and the cause, but almost all forms of vaginitis can be treated. Yeast infections can be treated by medication inserted into the vagina or by taking a pill orally (usually, a male sexual partner does not need treatment if a woman is diagnosed with a yeast infection). Antibiotics are often given to treat infections such as BV and trichomoniasis. But as with many medications, side effects do occur. Make sure to talk to your provider about possible reactions to the medicine.


Different types of vaginitis can reappear in women. Repeated treatments can be given. But if the diagnosis is trichomoniasis, one of the most important steps is to contact recent sexual partners, as to begin treatment immediately and stop the infection from spreading. If treatment is unsuccessful and symptoms remain, contact your provider to create another plan.


Prevention tips include avoiding feminine hygiene sprays and scented tampons; do not douche, and instead let your vagina naturally cleanse itself; do not use soap or detergent to clean the vulva as these upset the normal balance of organisms; clean spermicide applicators and diaphragms after every use; use condoms during sex; and ask your healthcare provider about ways to avoid yeast infections if you are on an antibiotic for other reasons.


Because symptoms of vaginal infections are not always obvious and do not always appear right away, it is important to regularly visit your primary healthcare provider and go for a yearly checkup with your gynecologist.


Fast Fact

Trichomoniasis can cause vaginal itching, burning, and soreness of the vagina and vulva, as well as burning during urination. Many women with trichomoniasis do not develop any symptoms. Persons being treated for trichomoniasis should avoid sex until they and their partners have finished treatment and no longer have symptoms.


Fast Fact

It is important to remember that each type of vaginitis has a different treatment. Therefore, it is very important to see a healthcare provider to be sure you are using the right treatment for your condition. Also, some kinds of vaginitis have no symptoms, so it is important to have regular gynecologic exams.