Vaginal Infections

By OBOS Common Medical Conditions Contributors | October 15, 2011

All women secrete moisture and mucus from the membranes that line the vagina and cervix. This discharge is clear or slightly milky and may be somewhat slippery or clumpy. When dry, it may be yellowish.

When a woman is sexually aroused, under stress, or at midcycle, this secretion increases. It normally causes no irritation or inflammation of the vagina or vulva. If you want to examine your own discharge, collect a sample from inside your vagina—with a washed finger—and smear it on clear glass (such as a glass slide).

Many bacteria normally grow in the vagina of a healthy woman. Some of them, especially lactobacilli, help to keep the vagina healthy, maintaining an acid pH (less than 4.5), and control overgrowth of potentially bad bacteria.

The three most common vaginal infections are yeast (candida) infections, bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis (“trich”), which is almost always transmitted sexually.

When vaginal infections occur, you may have abnormal discharge, mild or severe itching and burning of the vulva, chafing of the thighs, and (in some cases) frequent urination. Chronic vaginal (and vulvar) symptoms sometimes result from skin conditions of the vulva and vagina, such as eczema or psoriasis.

Vaginal infections may be due to lowered resistance (from stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, other infections in our bodies); douching or use of scented sprays; pregnancy; taking birth control pills, other hormones, or antibiotics; diabetes or a prediabetic condition; cuts, abrasions, and other irritations in the vagina (from childbirth, intercourse without enough lubrication, tampons, or using an instrument in the vagina medically or for masturbation). Infections are also transmitted during sex with an infected partner.  Chronic vaginal infections are infrequently a sign of serious medical problems such as HIV infection and diabetes.

Medical and Alternative Treatments

The usual treatment for vaginitis is some form of antibiotic—which can also disturb the delicate balance of bacteria in the vagina and may actually encourage other infections (such as yeast) by altering the vagina’s normal acid/alkaline balance (pH). Some antibiotics also have unpleasant or even dangerous side effects.

As an alternative to antibiotics for vaginitis, some women find that natural and herbal remedies can help restore the normal vaginal flora and promote healing, though there are no studies showing how effective most of them are. Some women have tried soothing herb poultices or sitz baths (sitting in the tub with just enough water to immerse your thighs, buttocks, and hips). You should not rely on these remedies if you have an infection that involves your uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries.

For information on specific kinds of vaginal infections, see Yeast Infections and Bacterial Vaginosis.