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Common vaginal infections


Expert reviewer, Dr Samantha Wild, General Practitioner, Bupa
Next review due November 2023

Infections of your vagina and vulva can cause symptoms such as soreness, itchiness and an unusual 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 growing in and around your vagina and vulva (the area surrounding your vagina). Some of these things normally live in your vagina without causing any problems. But they can grow out of control if the normal healthy conditions in your vagina are disrupted. Things that might cause this include douching (washing out your vagina), taking antibiotics, using tampons, and some types of contraception.

Products like soap, bubble baths, intimate hygiene products, detergents and fabric conditioners can also irritate the sensitive skin around your vulva and vagina. This might just cause symptoms such as itching, but sometimes it can also trigger an infection.

Other vaginal infections are sexually transmitted (STIs), meaning you can get them if you have unprotected sex with an infected person.

Symptoms of common vaginal infections

Depending on the type of infection, you might have:

  • an unusual discharge from your vagina, which can be thick and white like cottage cheese, or thinner, white/grey, green or yellow and fishy-smelling
  • itchiness or soreness in or around your vagina
  • pain when you have sex
  • pain when you pass urine (pee)
  • pain in your lower abdomen (tummy) or pelvis
  • bleeding between your periods or after you have sex
  • warts or ulcers around your vulva (the area surrounding your vagina)

You can have many of these 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 during your menstrual cycle, as you get older, if you take the contraceptive pill or if you get pregnant. But an abnormal unexplained change in your vaginal discharge, along with other symptoms, can also 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 a sexually transmitted infection (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, allowing 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, to check whether you’re pregnant, or to rule out a urinary tract infection.

Types of vaginal infection

Here we give a brief overview on some of the most common types of vaginal infection.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that normally live in your vagina. It’s the most common type of vaginal infection. Around half of people who get it don’t have any symptoms, but if you do, you’ll usually have a thin grey or white, fishy-smelling vaginal discharge. You won’t usually have any soreness, itching or irritation with this infection.

BV can develop when there has been a change in the normal conditions of your vagina. It isn’t a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but being sexually active – especially if you’ve had a recent change in partner – is thought to increase your risk. Other things that can increase risk include using vaginal hygiene products such as douches and deodorants, having the contraceptive copper intra-uterine device (IUD) and smoking.

BV can sometimes clear up on its own, but you might find it keeps coming back. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to help get rid of it. These are usually tablets that you take by mouth, or you can be prescribed a gel or cream that you apply to your vagina.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STI in the UK. It’s caused by a type of bacteria. It’s common not to have any symptoms with chlamydia. But if you do, you may notice you have more vaginal discharge than normal, and bleeding between your periods or after sex. You might also get pain during sex or when you pass urine (pee).

If chlamydia isn’t treated, it can go on to cause some serious complications – like infertility, chronic pelvic pain from pelvic inflammatory disease and problems during pregnancy. Chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics. You’ll be advised to go to a sexual health clinic if you have chlamydia. They can organise contacting your current or recent partners, who will need to be tested and treated if necessary.

As well as being able to get tested at your GP surgery, genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic, you can order chlamydia tests online to do yourself at home. These are free in some areas.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which is usually passed on through sexual contact. Not everyone with genital herpes has symptoms, but it can cause painful blisters around your genital area. You may also feel unwell with a headache and fever.

Your doctor can advise you on things you can do to help with any pain and encourage blisters to heal. This includes cleaning the affected area with plain or salt water, and applying a petroleum jelly or mild anaesthetic gel. They may also advise treatment with antiviral medicine to help clear the blisters.

Although the blisters will heal, you can’t get rid of the virus itself – once you’re infected, it remains in your body. Your symptoms may flare up again if the virus is reactivated, although they’re not usually as bad if you get them again. Various things may trigger a flare-up, including illness, stress, smoking and drinking alcohol.

Genital warts

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is usually spread through sexual contact. They appear as small growths on or around your vulva, cervix, vagina or anus and can sometimes be painful and itchy or bleed. Genital warts are one of the most common STIs in the UK, but rates are dropping now that vaccination against HPV is offered to 12- and 13-year olds.

Your warts may go away on their own, but this may take a long time and they can become uncomfortable. Your doctor may be able to give you a cream or ointment that you use at home to get rid of them.

Sometimes you’ll need more specialist treatment, including cryotherapy (a procedure to freeze off your warts), excision (cutting out the warts) or electrocautery, which uses a heated electrode.

Although treatments help to remove the warts, they can’t get rid of the virus itself.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is an STI caused by bacteria. You may not get any symptoms, but if you do, they’ll usually appear within 10 days of getting infected. You may have more vaginal discharge than normal, and pain around your lower abdomen. It might hurt when you pass urine (pee), and you may get bleeding between your periods.

If gonorrhoea isn’t treated, it can go on to cause some serious complications, like infertility and chronic pelvic pain from pelvic inflammatory disease. Gonorrhoea is treated with antibiotics. You’ll usually need to go to a sexual health clinic for treatment. They can help with contacting current or recent sexual partners, who will need to be tested and treated if necessary.

Thrush

Vaginal thrush is a fungal infection that can cause itching, soreness and irritation around your vulva. You may have a thick, white vaginal discharge (a bit like cottage cheese), and it may also be painful to have sex or pass urine (pee).

Certain factors may make you more likely to develop thrush, including if you’re pregnant, if you have diabetes, and taking some types of antibiotics. There’s also some evidence that using soaps, shower gels or ‘intimate hygiene’ products around your genital area, and wearing tight-fitting clothing may trigger it, or make symptoms worse. It can also be brought on by sex.

Thrush can be treated with antifungal creams or pessaries (which you put into your vagina), or sometimes tablets. You can get these from a pharmacist without a prescription. But if you’re pregnant, you should see your GP.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by a parasite (tiny living cell) called Trichomonas vaginalis. Up to half of people with trichomoniasis don't have any symptoms. If you do, you’ll probably have a yellow or white, foul-smelling and possibly frothy vaginal discharge. You may have some soreness and itching around your vulva and pain when you pee.

Trichomoniasis can go on to cause serious complications if you don’t get it treated, such as infertility and problems during pregnancy. It can be easily treated with antibiotics. You’ll usually need to go to a sexual health clinic for treatment. They can help with contacting current or recent sexual partners, who will need to be tested and treated if necessary.

Prevention of common vaginal infections

Many common vaginal infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, genital warts and herpes are passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner. Using a condom can provide good protection against many sexually transmitted infections (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 soap and shower gels in your genital area, bath additives and intimate hygiene products. This is because these products can irritate your vagina. It’s also important not to douche (wash out your vagina) because this can affect the natural bacteria that live in your vagina and keep it healthy.

Frequently asked questions

  • The time it will take for the infection to clear up depends 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’re usually given a course to take for around seven days. This can be enough to clear the infection, but sometimes you may need further treatment.

    For thrush, you’re usually given a cream or pessary to apply to your vagina for up to three days, or a single tablet. It may take up to a week or two for the symptoms to go.

    Genital herpes can last for three or four weeks without treatment, but antiviral medicine may help to get rid of symptoms sooner. Genital warts can take several weeks, or sometimes months, of treatment to get rid of them.

  • 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, so you should avoid using these.



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Related information

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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, November 2020
    Expert reviewer Dr Samantha Wild, General Practitioner, Bupa
    Next review due November 2023

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