Healthy Living

What Causes Vaginitis?

What Causes Vaginitis?

Key Takeaways

  • Generally, vaginitis symptoms include vaginal discharge, itching, and irritation. However, some women may not experience any symptoms at all.  
  • The usual causes of vaginitis are: an overgrowth of certain yeasts, an imbalance between helpful and potentially infectious bacteria, and allergies and other chemical irritants. 
  • Trichomoniasis, an infectious vaginitis, is a sexually-transmitted disease that can be prevented by using condoms during sex.

When the vagina’s lining gets inflamed, vaginitis may occur. This is because the vagina contains its own chemical balance, and it can easily be disturbed. Women and girls can get this condition regardless of their age.

 

Causes of Vaginitis

Vaginitis may develop as a result of many causes.

-          Non-Infectious Vaginitis: This is vaginal inflammation resulting from allergies or chemical irritants. Detergents, spermicides, fabric softeners, douches, and latex condoms can cause irritation of the vagina lining. 

-          Atrophic vaginitis: This can develop when a woman reaches menopause. This condition results from a lack of estrogen and the resultant thinning of the vaginal lining, which then increases the chance of the vagina getting irritated.

-          Bacterial Vaginosis: This may result from an imbalance between potentially-infectious bacteria and bacteria that normally protect the vagina. Douching, cigarette smoking, having many sexual partners, and using intrauterine devices can all make you prone to the infection. This condition is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection, since even women who have never had vaginal intercourse may get it.

-          Yeast Infection: Also referred to as vaginal candidiasis, this condition develops in cases where there is overgrowth of the fungus candida. You may get yeast infections if you are using antibiotics, have high estrogen levels, have a suppressed immune system, or if you suffer from uncontrolled diabetes. Anything that alters the amount and type of bacteria in the vagina, like irritation due to insufficient vaginal lubrication or douching can make you susceptible to the infection.

This infection can be spread sexually, particularly via genital-oral sexual contact. It is, however, not classified as a sexually transmitted infection since women who are not active sexually can also get it. Even newborns can have vaginal discharge and inflammation in their first few weeks after birth, resulting from exposure to the estrogen of the mother just before birth.

-          Infectious Vaginitis: Trichomoniasis (or trich, pronounced as "trick") is a sexually-transmitted disease caused by a parasitic protozoa known as Trichomonas vaginalis. While it is women who are usually affected by trich, men can get infected too and pass it on to their partners. Other forms of vaginal infections may develop if a woman is suffering from fistula, which is an abnormal passage linking the vagina to the intestine. This allows stool to get into the vagina, raising the chances of it getting an infection. 

Complications and Symptoms of Vaginitis

Generally, vaginitis symptoms include abnormal vaginal discharge, itching, and irritation. However, some women may not experience any symptoms at all even when the infection is bacterial. Normally, bacterial vaginitis results in burning or itching after sexual intercourse or during urination. You may also experience a fishy-smelling watery discharge that might be more noticeable after sex.

Yeast infection symptoms include painful urination and vaginal itching. The vaginal lips (labia) mostly swell and can get sore.  You may experience a thick, whitish discharge that resembles cottage cheese. Yeast infections may also lead to discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse.

Allergic or irritant vaginitis may lead to mild to severe burning or itching of the vagina, which usually gets red and swollen. There is no vaginal discharge in this form of vaginitis.

Atrophic vaginitis usually does not result in symptoms. Certain women, however, may experience dry, sore vaginas. They may experience pain and a burning sensation during sex, as well as light bleeding and a watery discharge.

Women infected with trichomoniasis may experience severe trichomoniasis symptoms or none at all. Symptoms include soreness of the vagina and sometimes, abdominal discomfort. It can result in a discharge that has an unpleasant fishy smell and can be white, grey, yellow, or green in color. Pain during sex or urination is also common. Trichomoniasis can result in premature labor if not treated during pregnancy.

 

Diagnosis

Your physician will first ask about any past sexually-transmitted infections or other vaginal infections and do a pelvic or a physical evaluation. A sample of your vaginal discharge is sent for laboratory analysis to determine if you have an infection. Your vaginal pH will also be checked, since it can give a clue as to what is causing your vaginitis.

If there is no infection, the doctor may inquire about any irritants or chemicals your vagina is exposed to.

Vaginitis can sometimes be diagnosed by looking at the age of the woman, since postmenopausal women have a higher risk of vaginal lining irritation.

 

Prevention and Treatment

The cause of the vaginitis determines the treatment:

Bacterial vaginitis is treated by creams, tablets, or gels. Certain treatments are not recommended during pregnancy or with alcohol. Also, some vaginal creams can make latex condoms weak. Consult with your doctor on how to safely use the prescribed medication. If symptoms recur after treatment, call your doctor.

A single dose of antibiotics is used to treat trichomoniasis, and to prevent re-infection, sexual partners should get treatment together. Consult with your doctor about the treatment's safety if you are pregnant. To prevent trichomoniasis, you should always ensure the male partner always uses a latex condom during sex.

There are creams or antifungal pills to treat vaginal yeast infections. Consult with your doctor before buying non-prescription medications. You should visit your doctor if:

  • You are breast-feeding or pregnant
  • This is your first yeast infection
  • The treatments you have used have been unsuccessful
  • The infection recurs
  • You suffer from any health disorder that may make your immune system weak
  • You are not convinced the infection is caused by yeast
  • You have fever, pelvic pain, or smelly, colored vaginal discharge

Certain women experience recurrent yeast infections. Visit your doctor if you have had more than four infections in the previous year.

To minimize the swelling, redness, and itching from allergic or irritative vaginitis, your doctor may prescribe a cream or a steroid ointment. You can also put 4-5 teaspoons of baking soda in lukewarm bath water before soaking in the tub. To avoid future irritation, you should identify what is causing your vaginitis.

Lubricants or estrogen therapy may be used to reduce atrophic vaginitis.  Since not everyone can use estrogen therapy, consult with your doctor before using it.

If you suffer from diabetes, you can minimize your risk for vaginitis by managing your blood sugar.

Infectious vaginitis can be prevented by the use of condoms. Practicing a good toilet routine is also important. For example, wiping starting from the front to the back minimizes the risk of transmitting bacteria to the vagina from the anus.

The following are tips to maintain the healthy condition of your vagina and genital area and prevent non-infectious vaginitis:

  • Avoid pantyhose
  • Do not subject the area to extended or too much friction such as by rubbing too vigorously with a towel
  • Wear slacks that are loose-fitting
  • Avoid prolonged wearing of exercise clothes or bathing suits
  • Ensure that the area near the genitals is always clean and dry
  • Opt for cotton underwear 
  • Look for other contraceptives if jellies, lubricated condoms, creams, or sponges irritate your skin.
  • Avoid irritants such tampons, scented sanitary pads, douches, perfumed or colored toilet paper, and feminine hygiene sprays.

 

Prognosis

When treated properly, the majority of vaginitis patients will get well quickly. If there is no improvement in one week, go back to your doctor.

Bacterial and yeast infections are not sexually transmitted. This means you need not avoid sex at the time of treatment if your vaginitis is bacterial or caused by yeast. However, in the event that you have a virus or a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), wait till you and your partner have been treated and no longer show any symptoms before resuming sexual intercourse.

If your vaginitis is caused by yeast, the infection may recur. These infections may be treated using over-the-counter products.