Common vaginal infections

Your health expert: Dr Samantha Wild, Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
Content editor review by Pippa Coulter, April 2023
Next review due April 2026

Vaginal infections are very common. They can cause symptoms, such as soreness, itching and changes in vaginal discharge. Getting medical advice as soon as you notice a problem can help to get rid of your infection quickly and prevent complications.

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About common vaginal infections

Vaginal infections can be caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites or viruses. Some of these things normally live in your vagina without causing any problems. But sometimes they can grow out of control, causing an infection in your vagina and vulva (the area surrounding your vagina). Things that can trigger this or increase your risk include:

  • being sexually active, especially if you’ve had a recent change in partner
  • using vaginal hygiene products like douches, soaps, bubble baths, deodorants, vaginal washes and wipes
  • taking antibiotics 
  • some types of contraception, including the copper intrauterine device (IUD)
  • having a health condition that affects your immune system, like diabetes or HIV
  • taking long-term steroid medicines

Some common vaginal infections are sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This means you can get them if you have unprotected sex with an infected person.

A vaginal infection isn’t the same as a urinary tract infection (UTI) or cystitis. A UTI affects your bladder, or the tubes that carry urine out of your body. Your vagina is part of your reproductive system. This is separate from your bladder and urinary tract.

Types of vaginal infection

Common vaginal infections include the following.

  • Bacterial vaginosis. This is the most common vaginal infection. It happens when bacteria that normally live in your vagina grow out of control. It’s not sexually transmitted, but is linked to being sexually active. Bacterial vaginosis symptoms include a thin grey or white, fishy-smelling vaginal discharge.
  • Chlamydia. This is the most common STI in the UK. It’s caused by a type of bacterium. Common symptoms include increased discharge, bleeding between periods or after sex, and pain when you pee or during sex.
  • Genital herpes. These are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and spread through sexual contact. The warts appear around your vulva, cervix, vagina or anus.
  • Genital warts. These are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and spread through sexual contact. The warts appear around your vulva, cervix, vagina or anus.
  • Gonorrhoea. An STI caused by bacteria, gonorrhoea can cause an increase in discharge and pain around your lower abdomen. It might hurt when you pee, and you may get bleeding between your periods.
  • Thrush. This is a common fungal infection. Common thrush symptoms include itching or soreness around your vulva and sometimes a thick, white vaginal discharge (a bit like cottage cheese).
  • Trichomoniasis. This is an STI caused by a parasite (a tiny organism that lives on your body). If you have trichomoniasis, you may have a yellow-green, foul-smelling and possibly frothy vaginal discharge.

It’s possible to have more than one infection at a time. For example, if you have bacterial vaginosis, you’re at greater risk of getting chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital herpes and trichomoniasis.

You can have vaginal symptoms, such as itching, without having an infection. It's also normal and healthy to have some discharge from your vagina. The amount and consistency of this discharge can change at different times. These include during your menstrual cycle, as you get older, if you take the contraceptive pill or if you get pregnant. But an abnormal change in your vaginal discharge, especially if you also have other symptoms, can be a sign of an infection.

See your GP if you think you may have a vaginal infection. You can also book an appointment directly with a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic if you think you could have an STI. Your GP may also refer you here if they suspect you have an STI.

Diagnosis of common vaginal infections

Your doctor or nurse will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. Sometimes this is enough to understand what the problem is. They may also ask to examine your genital area. You’ll need to give your consent before a doctor or nurse can examine you. They will also offer you a chaperone (someone else who will stay in the room at the same time).

In an examination, the doctor or nurse will first look at your vulva (the area surrounding your vagina). They’ll then use an instrument called a speculum to gently open your vagina. This allows them to look and examine inside. They may take a sample of discharge or cells from your vagina using a small, round cotton bud called a swab. These samples are sent to a laboratory for testing.

Your nurse or doctor may also ask to take a urine sample. This is used to check whether you’re pregnant, or to rule out a urinary tract infection.

Treatment of common vaginal infections

Some vaginal infections, like genital warts, may eventually go by itself without treatment. But others, like chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis, can go on to cause serious complications if you don’t get them treated. These can include fertility problems, chronic pelvic pain from pelvic inflammatory disease and problems during pregnancy.

What treatment your doctor may recommend will depend on exactly what infection you have. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor or go to a sexual health clinic for a proper diagnosis.

Treatments may include the following.

  • Antibiotics for bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis. These can quickly get rid of the infection. Usually, you’ll be prescribed antibiotics that you take by mouth for up to a week. But for bacterial vaginosis, you may have an antibiotic gel or cream that you apply to your vagina instead.
  • Antiviral medicines for genital herpes. These may help to clear your blisters. You can’t get rid of the virus itself though – once you’re infected, it remains in your body. Your symptoms may flare up again if the virus is reactivated.
  • Creams, ointments and solutions for genital warts. You may be able to apply these at home to help get rid of your warts. Sometimes you may need specialist treatment from your doctor to remove them.
  • Antifungal tablets for thrush. You’ll usually only need to take a single tablet, although it can take a week or two for symptoms to go. You can also get creams or pessaries (which you put in your vagina), which you apply for two to three days. You can get these from a pharmacist without a prescription. But if you’re pregnant, see your GP.

Some people try using home remedies, such as live, natural probiotic yoghurt and tea tree oil to ease symptoms of thrush. But there’s no evidence to say whether these things can help.

Tea tree oil and other essential oils may irritate your skin and actually make your symptoms worse. It’s best to avoid using these.

Prevention of common vaginal infections

Many common vaginal infections are passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner. These include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, genital warts and herpes. Using a condom can provide good protection against many STIs. You should also have a test for STIs before having sex with someone new, and suggest they do too.

You can reduce your risk of some vaginal infections, like thrush and bacterial vaginosis, by avoiding using hygiene products in the area around your vagina. These include soaps, shower gels, bath additives, douches and vaginal washes. This is because these products can irritate your vagina and lead to infection.

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This will depend on the type of vaginal infection you have and how quickly you get treatment. For infections that are treated with antibiotics (such as bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis and chlamydia), you’ll usually need treatment for around seven days. For thrush, it may take up to a week or two after treatment for the symptoms to go.

Read more in our section on treatment of common vaginal infections.

If you have bacterial vaginosis, you may notice your vaginal discharge is thinner than normal and a grey or white colour. It may also smell ‘off’ or fishy. Bacterial vaginal infections also include sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhoea. These can cause other symptoms like pain when you pee or bleeding between periods or after sex.

See our types section for more details.

Trichomoniasis can cause a vaginal discharge that’s yellow-green, smells odd and can sometimes be frothy too. It’s a sexually transmitted infection caused by a parasite. You’ll need to get checked out by a doctor or nurse to be sure if trichomoniasis is causing your symptoms.

See the types section for more details.

Bacterial vaginosis tends to cause a thin, grey/white, fishy-smelling vaginal discharge. With vaginal thrush, the discharge is more likely to be thick and white. It can make you itch and feel sore too. If you haven’t had these symptoms before, it’s always best to get checked out by a GP or sexual health clinic. They can make sure you get a correct diagnosis.

See our diagnosis section for more on getting diagnosed.

More on this topic

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