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Common vaginal infections
Itchiness, soreness and a vaginal discharge can be signs of infection. However, it is quite normal and healthy for women of
childbearing age to have a vaginal discharge. The quantity and colour of this can change during the menstrual cycle, sexual
excitement and pregnancy. An abnormal discharge which is thick and white, green and foul-smelling, or blood stained suggests
Causes of infection
Thrush, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, chlamydia and gonorrhoea are the most common causes of vaginal infection. Other
infections include genital herpes and genital warts. Each of these is described below.
A foreign body, such as a forgotten tampon, can also promote infection and cause an offensive discharge.
In addition to a discharge, itchiness and soreness, other warning signs of an infection include:
– redness, swelling, lumps, blisters, sore spots or ulceration of the vulva (the skin around the outside of the vagina) or anus
So that a doctor can diagnose a vaginal infection, he or she may need to examine the outer genital skin and the inner vaginal
lining. An instrument called a speculum, the same as used for a smear test, is sometimes used. A sample of discharge may be
taken using a swab, which looks like a long cotton bud. This is sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Almost all women have the fungus Candida albicans growing harmlessly on and in their bodies. However, when it grows
excessively, it causes thrush (vaginal candidiasis). Irritation and soreness of the vulva are the usual symptoms, sometimes but
not always, accompanied by a thick, white vaginal discharge. If left untreated, the irritation can spread to the area between the
buttocks. Passing urine and intercourse can be painful.
Pregnancy, menstruation, diabetes, wearing tight underwear and antibiotics are all possible triggers of an attack of thrush.
Most thrush infections respond to one of the antifungal treatments such as clotrimazole creams and pessaries (eg Canestan), orfluconazole (Diflucan) tablets, that are available from your doctor. You may also ask your pharmacist for advice. Many womenfind that applying plain yoghurt to the area helps relieve symptoms.
If the treatment doesn’t work or the symptoms return, see your doctor. Antifungal drugs or a longer course of fluconazole tabletsmay be prescribed. There’s no good evidence that treating a woman’s partner helps, unless he has a rash or soreness of thepenis.
Wearing cotton pants, changed daily, and avoiding harsh soaps, bubble baths and deodorants may help prevent thrush.
Vaginal douches are not recommended to treat or prevent vaginal infections, including thrush, as they disturb the natural, andprotective, acidity of the vagina.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the commonest cause of vaginal discharge in women of childbearing age. It causes a fishy smell and
occasionally vaginal itching and burning. BV symptoms can clear up without treatment before recurring. But, left untreated, the
infection can cause miscarriages, premature labour and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Bacterial vaginosis is caused when the bacteria normally found in the vagina (Lactobacillus) are overgrown by others (eg Gardnerellavaginalis), which are normally found in smaller numbers. Any woman with a fishy smelling discharge should seek medical advice,as the effective treatments — antibiotics in cream, gel or tablet form - are only available on prescription. This treatment is fairlyeffective in stopping the symptoms, but the condition often returns.
It is not clear how BV is related to sexual activity, although there may be a link with having a new sexual partner and a highlifetime number of sexual partners. The contraceptive coil seems to increase the risk of BV.
The characteristic symptom of trichomonas infection is a heavy, frothy, yellow-green, unpleasant-smelling discharge. It can also
cause discomfort during sex, vaginal itching, pain when passing urine and occasionally stomach pains. Research has linked
trichomonas infection with infertility, increased risk of transmission of HIV, premature labour, and low-birth-weight babies.
It is caused by a protozoan (a form of parasite) called Trichomonas vaginalis that is transmitted during sex. The treatment is withthe antibiotic metronidazole, available only on prescription. Trichomoniasis may cause no symptoms in men, so male partnersshould also be treated.
Chlamydia can cause pain when passing urine, long-term pelvic pain and infertility. However, it may produce no symptoms in
women. It’s also been associated with low birth weight babies and premature delivery. Infected male partners often complain of
painful urination (non-specific urethritis).
Chlamydia is caused by the sexually transmitted bacterium Chlamydia trachomitis.
Treatment is usually with the antibiotics doxycycline, erythromycin or azithromycin.
The main symptoms are vaginal discharge and pain passing urine, but there may be no symptoms in the early stages. Untreated,
gonorrhoea can lead to pelvic infection, with abdominal pain, painful sex, and a general feeling of being unwell. Damage to the
Fallopian tubes can result in reduced fertility and an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the tube rather than the
The bacterium responsible is called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Penicillin used to be the standard treatment, but as resistance isnow a problem newer antibiotics are often used.
Herpes infection can cause spots on the labia, clitoris and pubic area. These look like blisters, ulcers, or chapped areas. People
often have flu-like symptoms, fever and pain passing urine for about a week when first infected.
A pregnant women can transmit the infection to her baby during delivery. Severe damage to the baby’s nervous system canresult.
The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus being passed during sex. The virus lies dormant in the body and it’s commonto get repeated attacks. These are generally milder than the first attack. Sometimes a burning or tingling feeling is felt beforehand.
There’s no cure for herpes, but antiviral drugs (such as aciclovir tablets) can help to shorten the first attack, and reduce theseverity of further episodes. Some people find salt baths, ice packs and painkillers helpful. Frequent severe attacks may requireregular antiviral treatment for up to a year.
The virus is most infectious during an attack, so avoiding sexual activity at this time lessens the chance of passing it to others.
These appear as small round lumps on or around the genitals. They’re caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is
passed by skin-to-skin contact. Exposure to HPV increases the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Although there’s no cure for the virus, a variety of treatments are available to remove individual warts, including creams, applica-tion of liquid nitrogen, and laser surgery. Removing the warts as they arise does reduce the chance of passing on the infection.
Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes and trichomoniasis are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that can cause vaginal symptoms.
However some STDs do not cause symptoms. As a condom provides good protection against many STDs, one should always
be used unless both partners are entirely sure that they have not been exposed to infection.
If you suspect you have an STD, or other genital or urinary infection, see your doctor.
Healthwise (Health Information Resource Centre)
National Women’s Health Information Centerhttp://www.4woman.gov/faq/Easyread/vi-etr.htm
National Vaginitis Associationhttp://www.vaginalinfections.com/
This leaflet is for information only. For a detailed opinion or personal advice, please consult your own doctor.
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