Vaginitis

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Introduction

What is vaginitis?

Vaginitis, also called vulvovaginitis, is a common condition in which there is inflammation of the vagina and vulva. Vaginitis can result in vaginal discomfort, such as irritation and heavy vaginal discharge.

Vaginitis can be caused by an infection or by noninfectious causes. In many cases, vaginitis can be successfully treated if diagnosed early. Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause.

Some underlying causes of vaginitis, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and genital herpes, can lead to serious complications if untreated. Complications include infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and serious complications of pregnancy and the newborn. Using safer sex practices, seeking regular medical care, and seeking early, regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk of serious complications of underlying causes of vaginitis.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of vaginitis?

The symptoms of vaginitis result from the inflammation of the moist, sensitive mucosa of the vagina and vulva. Symptoms vary in character and intensity depending on the underlying cause of the vaginitis and individual factors.

General symptoms of infectious or noninfectious vaginitis can include:

  • Redness and swelling of the vagina and vulva

  • Unusual vaginal discharge

  • Vaginal and genital burning

  • Vaginal and genital itching

Symptoms of vaginitis caused by a bacterial infection include vaginal discharge that is thin and white and has a fishy odor. However, some women may have no symptoms.
Symptoms of vaginitis caused by trichomoniasis (a parasitic infection) include:

  • Burning of the vaginal and genital area

  • Burning with urination

  • Vaginal itching

Symptoms of vaginitis caused by genital herpes include:

  • Genital itching

  • Genital pain

  • Outbreaks of blisters in the vagina

  • There may be no symptoms of genital herpes between outbreaks.    

Symptoms of vaginitis caused by a yeast infection include:

  • Severe genital and vaginal itching

  • A thick, white vaginal discharge that has the consistency of cottage cheese

Causes

What causes vaginitis?

Vaginitis can be caused by an infection or by noninfectious causes. Infectious causes of vaginitis include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis, an overgrowth of the bacteria gardnerella, which normally live in the vagina

  • Chlamydia

  • Genital herpes

  • Gonorrhea

  • Poor genital hygiene, including wiping stool from back to front, which spreads fecal material from the rectal area to the vaginal area and can cause infection

  • Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease caused by a parasite

  • Yeast infection of the fungus candida

Noninfectious causes of vaginitis include:

  • Exposure of the female genitals to irritating substances or to allergens, such as perfumed soaps, bubble bath products, douches, detergents, spermicides, and vaginal deodorants

  • Leaving tampons in too long

  • Sexual abuse in girls

  • Taking antibiotics, which can cause an imbalance in the normal growth of bacteria and other microorganisms in the vagina, resulting in an overgrowth of candida and a yeast infection   

  • Wearing thongs or tight-fitting underwear, jeans, or other pants     

What are the risk factors for vaginitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing vaginitis. Not all people with risk factors will get vaginitis, and not all people who get vaginitis have risk factors.

Risk factors for vaginitis include:

  • Being sexually active and having multiple sexual partners

  • Having a sensitivity or allergy to perfumed soaps, bubble bath products, douches, detergents, spermicides, or vaginal deodorants

  • Having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with a partner who has had one or more other sexual partners

  • Leaving tampons in too long

  • Poor genital hygiene, including wiping stool from back to front, which spreads fecal material from the rectal area to the vaginal area and can cause infection

  • Sexual abuse in girls

  • Taking antibiotics, which can cause an imbalance in the normal growth of bacteria and other microorganisms in the vagina, resulting in an overgrowth of candida and a yeast infection   

  • Wearing tight-fitting underwear, thongs, jeans, or other pants

Reducing your risk of vaginitis

You can lower your risk of vaginitis by :

  • Abstaining from sexual activity

  • Avoiding exposure of the female genitals to irritating substances or to allergens, such as perfumed soaps, bubble bath products, douches, detergents, spermicides, and vaginal deodorants

  • Changing tampons frequently

  • Engaging in sexual activities only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected or has risk factors for an infection

  • Getting regular, routine medical care, including pelvic exams

  • Not wearing tight-fitting underwear, thongs, jeans, or other pants

  • Performing regular genital hygiene and wiping the genital area from front to back after bowel movements

  • Seeking medical care as soon as possible after possible after high-risk sexual activity

  • Using a new condom for each sex act

Treatments

How is vaginitis treated?

Treatment of vaginitis begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows your health care professional to best assess your risks of developing vaginitis and promptly order diagnostic testing as needed. These measures greatly increase the chances of diagnosing and treating underlying causes of vaginitis in their earliest, most curable stages.

Treatment of vaginitis varies depending on the underlying cause:

  • Antibiotic medications are used to treat vaginitis due to sexually transmitted diseases caused by bacteria, such as chlamydia, or by the parasite trichomoniasis.

  • Antifungal creams or pills are used to treat vaginitis caused by a yeast infection.

  • Antiviral medications are used to treat vaginitis due to genital herpes. These medications can help to minimize the irritation and pain caused by herpes in the vaginal area.

  • Treatment of a noninfectious vaginitis caused by a sensitivity or allergy to a certain substance includes avoiding exposure to the substance. Topical creams may be prescribed to ease the discomfort of itching and burning.  

What are the possible complications of vaginitis?

Complications of some underlying causes of untreated vaginitis can be serious and even life-threatening, especially to the unborn child of a woman with vaginitis. You can minimize the risk of serious complications for yourself, your unborn child, and your sexual partners by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Complications of some underlying causes of vaginitis include:

  • An increased risk for contracting HIV, which causes AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases

  • Infertility

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease

  • Premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, and other serious pregnancy complications

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 6
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  3. Ponte M, Klemperer E, Sahay A, Chren MM. Effects of vulvodynia on quality of life. J Am Acad Dermatol 2009; 60:70.
  4. Janković S, Bojović D, Vukadinović D, et al. Risk factors for recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis. Vojnosanit Pregl 2010; 67:819.
  5. Workowski KA, Berman S, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR Recomm Rep 2010; 59:1.
  6. Sobel JD, Reichman O, Misra D, Yoo W. Prognosis and treatment of desquamative inflammatory vaginitis. Obstet Gynecol 2011; 117:850.
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