It’s completely normal and healthy for women to have vaginal infections or some discharge from their vagina that’s usually clear or slightly cloudy. This is partly how the vagina cleans itself, but it does not really have a smell or make you itch. How much of it, and exactly what it looks and feels like, can vary during your menstrual cycle.
Symptoms of Vaginal Infection
However, when discharge has a very noticeable odor, or burns or itches, it’s likely there is a problem. You might feel an irritation any time of the day, but it’s most often annoying at night and having sex can make some symptoms worse. This is likely to be a vaginal infection (or malodour) which is very common — so much so that most women will experience some form of vaginal infection or inflammation during their lifetime.
Symptoms of a vaginal infection can include
- An unusual coloured vaginal discharge with a fishy odor
- Feel itchy in your vagina
- An irritated and sore vulva (the skin around the outside of your vagina)
- Pain when you have sex
- Pain in your lower abdomen
- Lumps, redness, swelling, blisters or ulcers on your vulva or anus
- Pain when you pass urine (dysuria)
Type of Vaginal Infection
There are various conditions that cause an infection or inflammation of the vagina, and because treatments vary by condition, it is important to know which type of infection you have.
The most common types or kinds are:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV) – a bacterial infection where the balance of bacteria inside the vagina is disrupted
- Candida or Yeast infections – such as thrush, a common yeast infection that affects most women at some point
- Chlamydia – a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria
- Genital herpes – an STI caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV)
Although they may have different symptoms, it is possible to have more than one at a time which can make diagnosis trickier.
Causes and Treatment of Vaginal Candida
Up to half of women have the yeast Candida albicans growing harmlessly in their vagina. However, if there is a change in the environment in your vagina, the yeast can grow more than usual and cause vaginal thrush (vaginal candidiasis). Common triggers for this include taking some types of antibiotic, pregnancy, immunosuppressive states, uncontrolled diabetes, perfumed soap or feminine hygiene sprays; and wearing tight-fitting underwear of clothes.
- Antifungal Tablets – Most infections due thrush get better after taking antifungal tablets or use antifungal creams, all of which are available from a pharmacist without a prescription. Your partner may also need specific treatment.
- Use Sanitary Pads – It is advisable to use sanitary pads rather than tampons if you’re using intravaginal creams to treat an infection – tampons may ‘soak up’ the treatment meaning there’s less available in the vagina.
Causes and Treatment of Bacterial vaginosis
BV is an infection that can happen when certain bacteria living naturally inside your vagina grow more than usual. It is the most common vaginal infection, and around half of women don’t even get any symptoms. Possible triggers for BV include perfumed soaps, feminine hygiene sprays or vaginal douching or smoking.
- Antibiotics – BV infections are simple to treat as they usually clear up after taking a course of antibiotics.
Causes and Treatment of Chlamydia
Chlamydia is the most common STI, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. Seven in 10 women and half of men with chlamydia do not have any symptoms, so many people have the infection without knowing it.
- Antibiotics – Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics, and any recent sexual partners will also need to be tested and treated if necessary.
Causes and Treatment of Genital herpes
Genital herpes causes painful blisters on the genitals and the surrounding are, and can be passed on through sexual contact. Once you are infected, HSV stays in your body for the rest of your life, although it doesn’t always cause any symptoms.
- Antiviral Tablets – You will probably be prescribed antiviral tablets, which can reduce the severity of the attack but won’t eradicate the infection – this means you may still get further reactivations. Some people get viral reactivations more often than others and may take antivirals preventatively to suppress the virus and keep symptoms at bay.
- Ointments – containing a local anaesthetic can also be applied to the affected area to help with any pain.
Other Recommended Treatment
A healthy vagina has many bacteria and yeast, however, there are many things that can disturb the natural balance.
- Keep your genital area clean and dry
- Take a warm bath rather than a hot one
- Use unperfumed soap to clean your genitals.
- Avoid douching (spraying water inside your vagina) as it can remove the healthy bacteria that line the vagina and helps keep it free from infection.
- Feminine hygiene products such as sprays, deodorants or powders can also lead to infections, so these are best avoided too.
- Wearing loose-fitting cotton underwear will also allow your genital area to breathe and be beneficial if you have external soreness.
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