Understanding Vaginal Infections 101

 

Is something not quite right down there? Are you experiencing itching, or a burning sensation when you pee? Is sex painful? Is your vaginal discharge a strange colour, or smelly? These are all signs of an infection. Understanding vaginal infections is no walk in the park, so it is crucial to be aware of the most common types, what causes them, how to prevent them, how to treat them, and the potentially harmful consequences.

 

What are the infections?

The two most common vaginal infections are Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections (caused by candida yeast). While the symptoms for both are similar, they require very different treatment regimens. BV, for example, needs prescription medication to treat while yeast infections can be remedied with pharmacy medications.  (1)

 

Understanding Vaginal infections – What causes them? Can you prevent them?

An upset in the vagina’s ecosystem causes both infections. In the case of BV, healthy bacteria become overwhelmed by anaerobes or bad bacteria, possibly as a result of poor hygiene, but more likely the result of excessive hygiene.

Douching or steaming the vagina can disrupt its balance of microbes. Douching rinses away the good bacteria and upsets the pH balance of the vaginal walls. Steaming kills the bacteria outright, and the herbs used may do the same. 

The best way to avoid this kind of infection is to leave well enough alone. Do clean the vulva and labia, but your vagina can take care of itself. Also, be mindful of what you insert – dirty sex toys, for example, could introduce harmful bacteria to the area.  

A yeast infection, more commonly known as thrush, is caused by a fungus. Yeast occurs naturally in the vagina and is kept under control by the moderately acidic nature of the environment and the Lactobacillus bacteria in it.   (2) (3)

It’s a delicate balance, and if that balance is interrupted, it can cause a yeast infection. Unfortunately, many things can upset this balance. Antibiotics can kill off the healthy bacteria, letting the yeast get out of control. 

Upsetting the pH balance in your vagina by douching with vinegar or soap can lead to problems as well; as can the use of birth control, a weakened immune system, and uncontrolled diabetes.

 

How do you make them go away?

Using the right treatment for the right problem is essential. Consult your gynecologist for a definitive diagnosis, especially if it’s the first time you’ve had this issue. The symptoms for both can be similar so tests might be required.   (4)

Yeast infection symptoms include: 

  • An itching vulva
  • A burning sensation when peeing
  • A thick discharge resembling cottage cheese, usually white and without a strong smell

If you’re sure that you have a yeast infection, then you can use an over-the-counter pharmacy medication to treat it. It’s important to follow the directions precisely. 

BV is a little more serious than a yeast infection. To get rid of BV, you’ll typically need to take antibiotics. Symptoms include:

  • A heavy discharge with a distinct fishy smell
  • Discharge may range in color
  • You won’t always have itching

Do you have to worry about them?

Thrush is the less severe infection of the two. If you have a relatively healthy immune system, leaving it untreated for a little while shouldn’t cause serious health issues. They won’t affect your fertility.  

The danger is when your immune system is compromised. The yeast could start gaining a foothold in the rest of your body and leave you feeling unwell.

BV is a lot more dangerous. Leaving it untreated puts you at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.  Worse still, the infection could work its way up through to the uterus and fallopian tubes, resulting in a painful condition called Pelvic Inflammatory disease, which could harm your fertility.

In both cases, it’s best to get the problem treated as soon as possible.  (5) (6)

Read more about women’s questions and issues on our blog .

REFERENCES

  1. https://www.verywellhealth.com/bacterial-vaginosis-overview-3132661
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999
  3. https://www.verywellhealth.com/vaginal-yeast-infections-overview-3521202
  4. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-q-and-a-vaginal-infections-may-have-similar-symptoms-but-require-different-treatments/
  5. https://www.dovemed.com/diseases-conditions/bacterial-vaginosis-bv/
  6. https://www.dovemed.com/diseases-conditions/vaginal-infections/
Deborah Kerr
Author

Meet Deborah Kerr. She's a huge advocate for patient-focused healthcare. After twenty years of store management in community pharmacy, and ten years of corporate management for independent pharmacy, she developed an itch. The more she scratched, the more it spread. Why does menopause take so many women by surprise? Why does it have the ability to impact relationships, and families, and workplaces. It's insidious. She found herself shouting, "there has to be a better way".

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