Vaginitis is described medically as irritation and/or inflammation of the vagina. Vaginitis is a very common disease affecting millions of women each year. The three most common vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV), candida vaginitis (yeast infection) and trichomonas vaginitis (trich).

What are the signs or symptoms of vaginitis?

Vaginal infections can produce a variety of symptoms, such as abnormal or increased discharge, itching, fishy odor, irritation, painful urination or vaginal bleeding. When you have vaginitis, you may have some or all of these symptoms. If you have any of these symptoms, discuss them with you doctor or nurse so that you can be tested.

What causes vaginitis and how common is it?

Vaginitis has various causes. It may result from bacterial infections, fungal infection, protozoan infection, contact dermatitis or even an allergic reaction. Vaginitis affects millions of women and is one of the primary reasons women visit their doctor. Trichomonas is sexually transmitted, but other vaginitis infections are not usually sexually transmitted.

What is the difference between the three types of vaginitis?

Bacterial - this type of infection is caused when healthy vaginal organisms are replaced by bacteria. It is referred to as bacterial vaginosis and is the most common type of vaginitis.

Yeast - this type of infection is called candidiasis. It is caused by a fungus and is the second most common type of vaginitis.

Protozoan - this type of infection is called trichomoniasis and it is considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It is the least common and comprises 3 percent to 5 percent of all vaginitis infections.

What causes bacterial vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the name of a condition in women where the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina is disrupted and replaced by an overgrowth of certain bacteria. It is sometimes accompanied by discharge, odor, pain, itching or burning.

One type of a good bacteria, Lactobacillus, is particularly important. Lactobacillus keeps the vagina slightly acidic to reduce the growth of potentially harmful organisms. When Lactobacilli are replaced with different kinds of a bad bacteria called anaerobic bacteria, an unpleasant vaginal odor develops and an infection (vaginitis) occurs.

Are there any complications associated with vaginitis?

Yes, there may be, especially from bacterial vaginosis. If left untreated, BV may result in increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility, pre-term birth, premature rupture of membranes, low birth weight, intra-amniotic infections, endometritis, cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN), post-gynecological surgery infections, and increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

Will my Pap smear diagnose a vaginal infection?

Although your annual Pap smear is a very important test, it is not typically used as a test for vaginitis.

How can my doctor tell if I have an infection?

The tests for vaginitis are simple and can be done right in your doctor’s office. Your doctor will examine your vagina and use a swab to get a sample of the discharge. Vaginitis is identified by checking vaginal fluid appearance, vaginal pH, the presence of volatile amines (the odor causing gas) and the microscopic detection of clue cells. New tests are now available to aid the physician in his or her diagnosis.

How do I address the subject with my healthcare provider?

First, do not be embarrassed. Vaginal infections occur in millions of women of all ages and backgrounds. Regular checkups and open discussions regarding your symptoms will go a long way toward maintaining good vaginal health. Your health care provider can perform simple tests to determine the type of vaginal infection and provide you with the best treatment.

How is vaginitis treated?

There are several ways to treat vaginitis, depending upon the cause of the infection: bacterial vaginosis can be treated orally or intra-vaginally with a prescription for medication; a yeast infection can be treated orally or intra-vaginally with either prescription or over-the-counter antifungal medications; and a trichomonas infection is usually treated with a prescribed oral antibiotic.

What can I do to prevent initial infections or recurrences?

In order to minimize the risk of developing vaginitis, here are some general suggestions for good vaginal health:

  • Practice good hygiene by keeping the vaginal area clean using a mild soap and dry area well.
  • Avoid douching and irritating agents such as harsh soaps and feminine hygiene sprays. Douches can disrupt the normal balance of vaginal organisms and should be avoided.
  • Avoid spreading bacteria from the rectum to the vagina by wiping front to back after going to the bathroom.
  • Avoid tight jeans, panty hose without a cotton crotch and other clothing that can trap moisture.
  • Practice abstinence or safe sex and avoid multiple partners. Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of STDs.
  • Studies have shown that stress can be a contributing factor.

Can vaginitis affect my baby?

Yes it can. Premature delivery and low birth weight of the baby are more common in women with bacterial vaginosis. Early diagnosis and treatment is important.

Does my partner need to be tested?

Ask your healthcare provider. Some types of vaginitis can be transmitted from one person to another during sexual intercourse. It depends upon what type of vaginitis you have.

Can I also be infected with something else?

Yes. You can be infected with a sexually transmitted disease and also have vaginitis. Each infection needs to be treated with different medications so it is important to visit your doctor to determine if you have more than one type of infection.

For answers to other questions, please speak with your doctor or nurse.

Where can I get more information?

Illinois Department of Public Health

HIV/STD Hotline 800-243-2437 (TTY 800-782-0423)

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
CDC-INFO Hotline (7am-7pm Mon.-Fri. Closed Holidays)

STD information and referrals to STD Clinics
800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)
TTY: 888-232-6348
In English, en Español

CDC National Prevention Information Network (NPIN)
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849-6003
888-282-7681 Fax

American Social Health Association (ASHA)
P. O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-3827

May 2013

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idph online home

Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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