Frequently Asked Questions: Gynecologic Problems
Vaginitis is an inflammation of the vagina. As many as one third of women will have symptoms of vaginitis sometime during their lives. Vaginitis affects women of all ages but is most common during the reproductive years.
A change in the balance of the yeast and bacteria that normally live in the vagina can result in vaginitis. This causes the lining of the vagina to become inflamed. Factors that can change the normal balance of the vagina include the following:
- Use of antibiotics
- Changes in hormone levels due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause
- Sexual intercourse
To diagnose vaginitis, your health care professional will take a sample of the discharge from your vagina and look at it under a microscope. Your health care professional also may suggest other tests.
Treatment will depend on the cause of the vaginitis. Treatment may be either with a pill or a cream or gel that is applied to the vagina.
Yeast infection also is known as candidiasis. It is one of the most common types of vaginal infection.
A yeast infection is caused by a fungus called Candida. It is found in small numbers in the normal vagina. However, when the balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina is altered, the yeast may overgrow and cause symptoms.
Use of some types of antibiotics increase your risk of a yeast infection. The antibiotics kill normal vaginal bacteria, which keep yeast in check. The yeast can then overgrow. A woman is more likely to get yeast infections if she is pregnant or has diabetes. Overgrowth of yeast also can occur if the body’s immune system, which protects the body from disease, is not working well.
The most common symptoms of a yeast infection are itching and burning of the area outside the vagina called the vulva. The vulva may be red and swollen. The vaginal discharge usually is white, lumpy, and has no odor. Some women with yeast infections notice an increase or change in discharge.
Yeast infections can be treated either by placing medication into the vagina or by taking a pill.
Over-the-counter treatments are safe and often effective in treating yeast infections. But many women think that they have a yeast infection when they actually have another problem. In these cases, a medication for a yeast infection will not work and may cause a delay in proper diagnosis and treatment of the actual problem.
Even if you have had a yeast infection before, it may be a good idea to call your health care professional before using an over-the-counter medication to treat your symptoms. If this is the first time you have had vaginal symptoms, you should see your health care professional. If you have used an over-the-counter medication and your symptoms do not go away, see your health care professional.
Bacterial vaginosis is caused by overgrowth of the bacteria that occur natually in the vagina.
The main symptom is increased discharge with a strong fishy odor. The discharge usually is thin and dark or dull gray, but may have a greenish color. Itching is not common, but may be present if there is a lot of discharge.
Several different antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial vaginosis. They can be taken by mouth or inserted into the vagina as a cream or gel.
Trichomoniasis is a condition caused by the microscopic parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. It is spread through sex. Women who have trichomoniasis are at an increased risk of infection with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Signs of trichomoniasis may include a yellow-gray or green vaginal discharge. The discharge may have a fishy odor. There may be burning, irritation, redness, and swelling of the vulva. Sometimes there is pain during urination.
Trichomoniasis usually is treated with a single dose of an antibiotic by mouth. Sexual partners must be treated to prevent the infection from recurring.
Atrophic vaginitis is not caused by an infection but can cause vaginal discharge and irritation, such as dryness, itching, and burning. This condition may occur any time when female hormone levels are low, such as during breastfeeding and after menopause. Atrophic vaginitis is treated with estrogen, which can be applied as a vaginal cream, ring, or tablet. A water-soluble lubricant also may be helpful during intercourse.
Antibiotics: Drugs that treat certain types of infections.
Bacterial Vaginosis: A type of vaginal infection caused by the overgrowth of a number of organisms that are normally found in the vagina.
Candidiasis: Also called yeast infection or moniliasis, a type of vaginitis caused by the overgrowth of a fungus.
Estrogen: A female hormone produced by the ovaries.
Hormones: Substances made in the body by cells or organs that control the function of cells or organs. An example is estrogen, which controls the function of female reproductive organs.
Menopause: The time in a woman’s life when menstruation stops; defined as the absence of menstrual periods for 1 year.
Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI): An infection that is spread by sexual contact, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes, syphilis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS]).
Spermicides: Chemicals (creams, gels, foams) that inactivate sperm.
Trichomoniasis: A type of vaginal infection caused by a one-celled organism that is usually transmitted through sex.
Vulva: The external female genital area.
If you have further questions, contact your obstetrician–gynecologist.
FAQ028. Copyright September 2017 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
This information is designed as an educational aid to patients and sets forth current information and opinions related to women’s health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care, nor does it comprise all proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for a treating clinician’s independent professional judgment. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.