It's normal and healthy for women to have some discharge from their vagina.
The amount and colour of this discharge can change during your menstrual cycle, when you take the contraceptive pill and when you’re pregnant.
Symptoms of a vaginal infection include:
- an unusual vaginal discharge – it may be an unusual colour and smelly
- an irritated and sore vulva (the skin around the outside of your vagina)
- feeling itchy in your vagina
- pain when you have sex
- bleeding between your periods or after you have sex
- pain in your lower abdomen (tummy) or pelvis
- lumps, redness, swelling, blisters or ulcers on your vulva or anus
- pain when you pass urine
Here are the main types of common vaginal infections. It’s important to get treatment for vaginal infections so you don’t develop any complications. These potential risks are listed in the last column of the table.
Main symptoms (if you get any)
Risks (if you don’t get treatment)
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
- Vaginal discharge that’s usually thin and grey with a fishy smell
There may be a link
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Premature labour
- Cloudy or yellow vaginal discharge
- Bleeding from your vagina after you have sex or between periods
- Pain in your lower abdomen (tummy) or pelvis
- Pain when you pass urine
- Pain when you have sex
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Tingling or pain in your genital area
- Painful blisters, or patches of sore, red skin on or around your vagina and bottom
- Pain when you pass urine
- A fever and feeling generally unwell
Yes Antiviral tablets and cream Genital warts
- Small, round lumps on or around your vulva, cervix, vagina or anus
Yes Creams, liquids, cryotherapy (a procedure to freeze off the warts), surgery or laser treatment
- Yellow vaginal discharge that may have pus in it
- Pain when you pass urine
- Bleeding between your periods of after sex
- Pain in your pelvis or tummy when you have sex
- Heavy periods
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Becoming infected with viruses such as HIV
- Feeling itchy and sore around your vagina and vulva
- Thick, white vaginal discharge (that looks like cottage cheese)
- Pain when you have sex and when you go to the toilet to pass urine
Not usually Antifungal tablets, creams or pessaries (which you put into your vagina) Trichomoniasis
- An itchy or painful vulva with heavy, sometimes frothy, yellow-green, fishy-smelling vaginal discharge
- Premature labour
- Low birth-weight baby
- Men becoming infected with viruses such as HIV
Your GP or doctor at a sexual health clinic will ask about your symptoms and your medical history. Your GP may refer you to a sexual health clinic for specialist treatment.
There are different ways to test for a vaginal infection. You may be asked to provide a sample of urine. A doctor or nurse at the clinic or surgery may ask to look inside your vagina using a speculum. This is an instrument to gently open your vagina; it is also used for smear tests. They’ll use a small, round cotton bud to take a swab of a sample of discharge or cells from your vagina. These samples may be tested or examined under a microscope in the clinic, and also sent to a laboratory for testing.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection that can happen when certain bacteria living naturally inside your vagina grow more than usual. It’s the most common vaginal infection, and up to half of women don’t get any symptoms. Possible triggers of BV include:
- perfumed soaps, feminine hygiene sprays or vaginal douching
- having a copper intra-uterine system (IUS or coil)
People don’t always get BV through having sex, although there seems to be a link with being sexually active, and having a new sexual partner.
This infection usually clears up if you take antibiotics. These usually come as tablets although they can sometimes be in the form of a gel or cream. If you have male partner, they don’t need to be treated for BV. BV seems to be more common among lesbian women. But if you have a female partner, they will usually only need to get treated if they have symptoms.
Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK. It’s caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis.
Lots of women have chlamydia without knowing it. Seven in 10 women and half of men with chlamydia don't have any symptoms.
Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics. Your doctor will give a course of antibiotic tablets or a one-off dose. Any recent sexual partners will also need to be tested and treated if necessary.
Your doctor may offer to re-test you three to four months after you’ve finished your treatment to check the infection has gone completely.
For more information about chlamydia, see our Related information.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which can be passed on through sexual contact. Once you’re infected, HSV stays in your body for the rest of your life, although it doesn’t always cause symptoms.
Your GP may prescribe you antiviral tablets, which can reduce the severity of the attack but won’t eradicate the infection. This means you may still get further attacks. But the antivirals might help to suppress the virus to keep your symptoms away so you get them less often.
You may also be given a local anaesthetic ointment to use on the affected area, to help with any pain.
Genital warts are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the UK, especially in people under 25. Genital warts are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus), which makes cells grow unusually. You can catch genital warts by having sex or genital skin-to-skin contact with someone who has them.
Genital warts appear as small, round lumps on or around your vulva, cervix, vagina or anus. It can take several weeks or months after you get infected for these to appear. Once you’re infected, HPV stays in your body for the rest of your life, although it doesn’t always cause symptoms.
Treatment depends on where the warts are, what they look like and how many you have. You might be offered creams or liquids, cryotherapy (a freezing procedure), surgery or laser treatment. You might find that the warts go after one treatment, or you may need to have several treatments.
For more information about genital warts, see our Related information.
Gonorrhoea is caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which you can get if you have unprotected sex.
Half of women with gonorrhoea don't have any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they’ll usually appear within 10 days of getting infected.
Gonorrhoea is treated with antibiotics. Your doctor will give you antibiotics as a one-off injection and tablets. Any recent sexual partners will also need to be tested and treated if necessary.
You’ll need to be tested again about a week after you finish your treatment to check the infection has gone completely.
For more information about gonorrhoea, see our Related information.
Up to half of women have the yeast Candida albicans growing harmlessly in their vagina. If there’s some change in the environment in your vagina, the yeast can grow more than usual, and cause vaginal thrush (vaginal candidiasis).
Common triggers for thrush include:
- taking some types of antibiotic
- being pregnant
- having diabetes that’s not well controlled
Perfumed soap or feminine hygiene sprays, taking the combined contraceptive pill and wearing tight underwear or clothes have also been linked to thrush. But there isn’t any strong evidence to prove it.
Most infections get better if you take antifungal tablets, or use antifungal creams or pessaries (which you put into your vagina). Examples of medicines include fluconazole and clotrimazole. You can get these from a pharmacist without a prescription. If you’re pregnant, see your GP before you take any medicines to treat thrush. If you have a male partner, they don’t need any treatment unless they have a rash or a sore penis.
For more information about thrush, see our Related information.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis, which you usually get through having unprotected sex. Up to half of women with trichomoniasis don't have any symptoms.
Trichomoniasis can sometimes get better without any treatment, but your doctor will usually prescribe some antibiotics to clear up the infection. They may prescribe a course of antibiotic tablets lasting five to seven days, or it may be a one-off larger dose. Your partner will also need to be treated, even if they don’t have symptoms of the infection.
Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, genital warts and herpes are all passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact or in bodily fluids during sex. A condom provides good protection against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But genital warts and herpes may still be passed on by contact with skin that’s not covered with a condom.
Other things you can do to reduce your risk of getting a vaginal infection include:
- not using perfumed soaps or antiseptic feminine hygiene wash
- not using vaginal douches – they disturb the natural protective acidity in your vagina
If you're diagnosed with an STI, it's important to contact your previous partners who may have it. This can prevent them from spreading the infection to others. Sexual health clinics can send anonymous notifications on your behalf if you're willing to provide details.
FAQ: How to relieve symptoms Is there anything I can do to feel more comfortable when I have a vaginal infection?
Things you can do to help ease your symptoms while you're having treatment include wearing loose-fitting clothes and underwear and taking painkillers. Also, don’t use perfumed bath and shower products.
If you do the following, it may help you feel more comfortable.
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothes rather than tight clothes, or nylon underwear or tights.
- Use plain water or an emollient such as E45 to wash – perfumed soaps, bath or shower products, antiseptics or vaginal deodorants can irritate your skin.
- Don't scrub with a flannel or sponge. And wash your hair over a sink so the shampoo doesn't get to the affected area.
If you have pain from genital herpes or warts:
- take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- have a bath in salt water
- put petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) or a mild anaesthetic gel on the infected area – you can buy this from a pharmacy
- pass urine while you’re sitting in the bath, or pour warm water over your vulva while you're on the toilet
FAQ: Time taken to clear up How long will it take for a vaginal infection to clear up and will it come back?
This can vary. Common bacterial vaginal infections are often treated with a course of antibiotics but some infections do come back. You can help to prevent this by taking your medicine as directed and finishing the course of treatment.
The time it will take for the infection to clear up depends on the type of vaginal infection you have. If you still have symptoms after you’ve finished your treatment, or you get it again, talk to your sexual health clinic or GP.
It's important that you finish your course of treatment even if your symptoms have improved. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
Some vaginal infections, such as genital herpes and genital warts, can keep coming back. This is because these viruses are never completely cleared from your body. Other infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea normally only come back if you get infected again, which can happen if your partner doesn’t get treated.
'Live' natural yoghurt may help to ease symptoms of thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV) but it won’t cure either infection. Studies haven’t shown that the complementary medicine, tea tree oil, can treat thrush.
Both thrush and bacterial vaginosis are thought to be caused by a disturbance in the healthy bacteria and yeasts usually found in your vagina. There isn’t enough research to show whether yoghurt is effective at treating either condition, but it may help to ease your symptoms.
Yoghurt isn't likely to be harmful so if you want to ease your symptoms, you can put it in and around your vagina. Use plain, 'live' yoghurt. If you use a probiotic yoghurt that contains lactobacillus, it may help to prevent bacterial vaginosis if you’re prone to it.
- Map of medicine. Vulvovaginal candidiasis. International view. London: Map of medicine; 2015 (issue 4)
- Vaginal discharge. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published May 2013
- Assessment of vaginal discharge. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 14 August 2014
- Genital warts. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 7 September 2015
- UK national guideline for the management of bacterial vaginosis 2012. British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. www.bashh.org, published 2012
- Genital tract chlamydia infection. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 21 September 2015
- Herpes simplex infection. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 22 January 2016
- Sexually transmitted infections in primary care. Royal College of General Practitioners. www.rcgp.org.uk, published 2013
- UK national guidelines on the management of anogenital warts 2015. British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. www.bashh.org, published April 2015
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- Gonorrhoea infection. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 21 September 2015
- Sherrard J, Ison C, Moody J, et al. United Kingdom national guideline on the management of Trichomonas vaginalis 2014. Int J STD AIDS 2014; 25(8):514–49. doi: 10.1177/0956462414525947
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- Infection report. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published 23 June 2015
- Map of medicine. Chlamydia. International view. London: Map of medicine; 2015 (issue 3)
- Management of vaginal discharge in non-genitourinary medicine settings. British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare. www.fsrh.org, published February 2012
- Herpes simplex – genital. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published September 2012
- Candida – female genital. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published December 2013
- Geer K, Adebisi T. What prophylactic treatments are effective for patients with recurrent bacterial vaginosis? Evidence-Based Practice 2014; 17(4):11–12. www.fpin.org
- Guidelines on urological infections. European Association of Urology. www.uroweb.org, published March 2015
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, Health Content Team, March 2016.
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