There are many possible causes for yeast infections and other recurrent vaginal infections. Being able to recognize what’s behind your specific problem is key to getting appropriate treatment.
Discharge, odor, itching, and pain: The symptoms associated with vaginal infections are unpleasant enough when they’re infrequent. For women who experience recurrent vaginal infections, the ordeal is especially disruptive and frustrating.
Vaginal Infections: Why They Happen
It’s not entirely clear why some women have trouble with frequent vaginal infections, but vaginal pH, or the degree of acidity in the vagina, may play a role. The vaginal canal is usually a fairly acidic environment, but disruptions in vaginal pH can allow overgrowth of bacteria that shouldn’t be there.
Other factors that may contribute to recurrent infections include:
- Variations in the immune system that lead to changes in vaginal pH
- Heavy periods that result in more blood in the vaginal area, which may allow bacteria to grow
- Sexual activity without adequate lubrication, which can lead to small tears and vaginal irritation that can make you more prone to infection
- Underlying health issues, like diabetes, that place women at higher risk of infection, particularly yeast infections
- Smoking, which can also compromise the immune system’s ability to fight bacteria
Women to be certain they actually have a vaginal infection before they use over-the-counter treatments or ask their doctor for medicine to treat the problem. Many women think they have an infection, but they’re really going through normal vaginal changes. Just because you’re having discharge, even if it’s colored, doesn’t mean you have an infection. However, if the discharge is accompanied by pain, burning, or itching, you should be checked out by your primary care doctor or gynecologist to determine if there’s a problem.
There are several different types of vaginal infections, but the three most common are yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis infections, and trichomonas vaginitis.
Vaginal Infections: Recurrent Yeast Infections
A yeast infection causes an overgrowth of the fungus candida in the vagina. Symptoms include a thick, cottage cheese-like discharge and persistent, vaginal itching. Yeast infections are fairly common, and several over-the-counter methods of treatment are available, as well as prescription medications.
Women who have frequent yeast infections may be at risk for a number of reasons. It’s not uncommon for women who have just been treated with antibiotics for a different infection to develop a yeast infection; this is because antibiotics can upset the delicate balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina. Women who have not been on antibiotics and continue to have repeated yeast infections may benefit from being tested for diabetes. Untreated diabetes leads to excess sugar in the blood and urine and may cause an overgrowth of yeast. Pregnancy and certain hormonal disorders can also lead to recurrent yeast infections.
Vaginal Infections: Bacterial Vaginosis
The number of over-the-counter treatments available for yeast infections might lead a woman to conclude that candida overgrowth is the most common cause of vaginal problems. But actually, for women of childbearing age, bacterial vaginal infection, or bacterial vaginosis (BV), is the leading type of vaginal infection.
While BV is often asymptomatic, it can cause pain and discomfort. Some of the telltale signs of this bacterial imbalance include:
- A “fishy” smell
- Unusual discharge (change in color and amount)
- Pain or burning during urination
- Vaginal itching
- Pain during sexual intercourse
Either Flagyl (metronidazole) or Cleocin (clindamycin) can be used to treat BV. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes recurrent episodes of BV, but good hygiene practices, like being sure to wipe from front to back when you go to the bathroom, is critical. Doctor also recommends making sure you use an adequate amount of vaginal lubricant before sexual penetration to help offset infection. Personal lubricants can be helpful if you often experience vaginal dryness. While the cause of BV remains unclear, minimizing your number of sexual partners and avoiding douching can also help prevent infection.
Vaginal Infections: Trichomonas Vaginitis
The most common type of vaginal infection spread through sexual intercourse is trichomonas vaginalis. Trichomonas, sometimes simply known as “trick,” is a single-celled parasite that often infects the vagina in women and the urethra (the opening that allows urine to drain) in men. Symptoms of trichomonas infection include a frothy, greenish, foul-smelling discharge, discomfort during intercourse, painful urination, irritation and itching of the genital area, and lower abdominal pain. However, some people, especially men, may be asymptomatic, or have no obvious symptoms.
In order to prevent recurrent trichomonas infection, both sexual partners must be treated at the same time, usually with a single dose of Flagyl or Tindamax (tinidazole). If a woman is treated and her partner is not, she risks re-infection until her sexual partner has been treated as well.
If you experience frequent vaginal infections, talk to your doctor about what might be putting you at risk, and consider having your partner evaluated for an asymptomatic infection as well.