By Susan Chow, PhD, ELS
Vaginitis, also known as vulvovaginitis, is a term used to describe inflammation of the vulva and the vagina. It can occur as a result of various conditions, including those that cause an infection due to the presence of yeast, bacteria, or viruses and irritation from chemicals or clothing in the area.
It is normal for the vagina to produce a discharge that can vary in quantity and consistency throughout the month. Vaginitis usually involves a significant change in the discharge from the vagina that may be itchy or have a pungent smell. The condition is relatively common and can affect any woman, from young girls to the elderly women.
There are various different types of vaginitis, according to the cause of the symptoms of inflammation.
- Candida (yeast) infection
- Bacterial infection
- Trichomoniasis infection
- Chlamydia or gonorrhea infection
- Viral infection
- Atrophic vaginitis
- Reaction to chemical substance or clothing
The symptoms of vaginitis depend on the cause of the inflammation and can vary significantly between individual women. In some cases, there are no notable symptoms present, whilst other women experience symptoms that have a substantial impact on their quality of life. These symptoms may include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Unpleasant odor from vaginal area
- Itching or burning around the vagina
- Pain and discomfort during sexual intercourse
- Light bleeding or spotting between periods
Diagnosis is usually made upon questioning about the presence of symptoms and may be confirmed upon physical examination and swab tests of the vaginal discharge.
It is essential that the correct diagnosis is drawn, as there are several different causes of vaginitis and each requires a specific treatment.
A candida infection is associated with a thick, white discharge that is often described to be similar in consistency to cream cheese. It does not usually have a distinctive smell but may be very itchy.
A bacterial infection, including sexually transmitted infections, is associated with abnormal discharge, which can vary from milky white to frothy green with different bacteria. Some women may note itching, pain or soreness, but this is not uniform with all bacterial infections.
If vaginitis results from a non-infectious cause, such as a chemical irritant, the most significant symptom is usually pain or burning in the area and there is little change in the vaginal discharge.
The treatment of vaginitis is targeted to the cause of the inflammation for the most effective results.
An infection caused by candida overgrowth is usually managed with an antifungal medication such as clotrimazole, econazole or miconazole. These are available in a cream or pessary form, both of which can be applied directly to vagina area.
An infection caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics such as metronidazole, which is also available to be applied locally to the vaginal area.
If an inflammatory response due to a chemical irritant is responsible, the irritant should first be removed, followed by treatment to soothe the irritation. This may include corticosteroids, a sodium bicarbonate bath or some oils.
The prevention of vaginitis is important, particularly for those women who are prone to the condition and experience symptoms on a regular basis.
Some clothing is associated with a higher risk of vaginitis, such as those made of synthetic materials and designed to be of a tight fit. Instead, cotton underwear is a better choice and loose fitting clothing can also help to reduce the number of vaginal infections.
Good hygiene is important, which involves basic cleaning of the genital area with water, without washing the normal discharge away. The natural vaginal discharge serves to clean the area and maintain the optimal pH balance. It is not recommended to flush the area with water, also known as douching, or to use chemical based products that may upset the natural balance.
Using adequate protection when engaging in sexual activities can help to reduce the risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea or trichomoniasis. In particular, the use of condoms should be advocated for to prevent vaginitis.
Last Updated: Jul 9, 2015