Vaginitis, also called vulvovaginitis, is an inflammation or infection of the vagina that can result in discharge, itching, and pain. This is caused usually by a change in the normal balance of vaginal bacteria or due to an infection. Vaginitis may also be caused due to reduced estrogen levels after menopause and some skin disorders.
The most common types of vaginitis are:
- Bacterial vaginosis: When bacteria normally found in the vagina (lactobacilli) are outnumbered by the growth of other bacteria (anaerobes) it disturbs and upsets the balance, causing bacterial vaginosis. This type of vaginitis appears to be linked to sexual intercourse, especially if one has multiple sex partners or a new sex partner but it is not a sexually transmitted infection.
- Yeast infections are usually caused by an overgrowth of naturally occurring fungus called Candida Albicans in the vagina.
- Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite and is commonly transmitted by sexual intercourse. It also increases women’s risk of getting other sexually transmitted infections.
- Vaginal sprays, douches, perfumed soaps, scented detergents and spermicidal products may cause an allergic reaction or irritate vulvar and vaginal tissues and lead to noninfectious vaginitis
- Foreign objects, such as tissue paper or forgotten tampons in the vagina, can also irritate vaginal tissues.
- Reduced estrogen levels after menopause or surgical removal of your ovaries can cause the vaginal lining to thin, sometimes resulting in vaginal irritation, burning and dryness.
Vaginitis signs and symptoms may include:
- Change in color and abnormal vaginal discharge with an unpleasant odor
- Vaginal itching or irritation
- Pain and discomfort during intercourse
- Burning feeling outside of the vagina during urination
- Light vaginal bleeding or spotting
Good hygiene may prevent some types of vaginitis from recurring and may relieve some symptoms:
- Scented tampons, pads, douches and scented, harsh soaps should be avoided as these can cause irritation in the vaginal tissues. Also, any soap used should be rinsed from the outer genital area after a shower and dried well to prevent irritation.
- The vagina doesn’t require cleansing other than normal bathing. Repetitive douching disrupts the normal organisms that reside in the vagina and can actually increase the risk of vaginal infection. Douching will not clear up a vaginal infection if it exists.
- Practicing safe sex and using a latex condom can help prevent infections.
- It is important to wear cotton underwear to keep the area dry. While wearing a pantyhose, ensure it has a cotton crotch as yeast thrives in moist environments.
- Avoid clothes that hold in heat and moisture
The key to the proper treatment of vaginitis is proper diagnosis. This is not always easy since the same symptoms can exist in different forms of vaginitis. You can greatly assist your doctor by paying close attention to exactly which symptoms you have and when they occur as the treatment depends on the type of vaginitis, as given below:
- Bacterial vaginosis can be treated by prescribed antibiotics or creams and gels
- Yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal creams or oral pills, that need to be taken or applied for one to three days for mild conditions. Severe conditions will require longer treatment.
- If the cause of vaginitis is a hormonal change, then an estrogen cream may be prescribed to help with the symptoms.
Follow-up consultation with the doctor may be required if the symptoms don’t go away completely, or return immediately or shortly after stopping the medication.
Vaginitis is a common medical problem in women of reproductive age and can be treated effectively after proper diagnosis. Good health habits, proper hygiene, and safe sex can help in the prevention of vaginitis.
Special thanks to Dr. Sachin Ajmera (MD, DNB, MNAMS, FICMCH, FCPS, DGO, DFP) for the expert advice.