The vagina is a busy, multi-tasking ecosystem. As you drive, exercise and sleep, your vagina is constantly working to stay healthy and maintain a balanced pH level with both good and bad bacteria.
But when the balance of yeast and bacteria in your vagina changes, infections like vaginitis can occur.
“When not in the right ecosystem, we end up with an ailment, like bacterial vaginosis,” says Dr. Emma Stephens, an OB-GYN at Meridian Women’s Health at Northwest Outpatient Medical Center.
If you’re dealing with an itchy, uncomfortable vagina, you’re not alone: Most people with vaginas will experience a vaginal infection at least once in their life, with some people experiencing recurrent problems.
Luckily, that doesn’t mean you have to live with infections. Stephens shares how to prevent vaginitis, ways to cope with the symptoms and what you can do if you experience repeated infections.
What is vaginitis?
Let’s start with the basics: Vaginitis is an umbrella term for infection and inflammation of the vagina. While not life-threatening, it is typically uncomfortable and requires treatment to prevent additional complications.
There are many types of vaginitis and sometimes more than one type of vaginitis can be present simultaneously.
Some of the most common forms and their causes include:
- Atrophic vaginitis, which occurs after menopause and causes thinning, drying and inflammation of the uterine lining.
- Bacterial vaginosis, which happens with bacteria overgrowth, typically caused by new or multiple sexual partners.
- Noninfectious vaginitis, which is an irritation without an infection caused by sprays, douches, perfumed soaps or spermicides.
- Trichomoniasis vaginitis, which is a sexually transmitted disease.
- Yeast infection — yes, it’s also a form vaginitis — which occurs when too much candida (yeast) grows.
Why vaginitis happens
Vaginas require a healthy balance of both good and bad bacteria to function smoothly. When balanced, the bacteria live in harmony and work together to protect you from infections. When that balance is off, you may find yourself being subject to changes like vaginitis.
What causes an imbalance?
Several factors can affect your vaginal microbiome and lead to vaginitis, including having a reaction to antibiotics, douching, using fragranced soaps and detergents, unprotected sex, or a change in hormone levels (such as having a baby or going through menopause).
What are the symptoms of vaginitis?
Based on the type of vaginitis you have, you may experience several symptoms or no symptoms at all. Common symptoms of vaginitis include itching, swelling, pain during urination or sex, odor and abnormal discharge.
“The vagina should have clear to white discharge,” Stephens shares. “It will vary in thickness and should be odorless, depending on where the individual is in their menstrual cycle.”
If you have vaginitis, you may notice a change in the color, texture and odor of your discharge — symptoms that warrant a call to your doctor.
How to treat vaginitis
Though based on the type of vaginitis and the individual’s symptoms, antibiotic treatment is usually the first step for alleviation.
“Clindamycin or metronidazole are the two most common medications,” explains Stephens. “They can be taken as an oral pill or vaginal gel.”
If you have a yeast infection, your doctor will prescribe an anti-yeast vaginal cream or an oral anti-fungal medication. If you have atrophic vaginitis, you will use a vaginal estrogen cream.
Some cases of vaginitis are more severe than others. If you find you are having a recurrent form of vaginitis, Stephens notes that along with seeking care from your doctor, other lifestyle changes should be made, such as changing your detergent or soaps, practicing good vaginal hygiene and following a healthy diet.
How to prevent vaginitis
Several things come into play when it comes to maintaining a healthy vagina and preventing infections.
Don’t irritate your vagina with soaps, scents and uncomfy underwear
“We want to stay away from those scented soaps, detergents or sprays,” encourages Stephens. “If you try to make your vulva and vagina smell like something it is not, even momentarily, it can irritate.”
Instead, Stephens recommends using water or mild, nonfragrant soap to gently clean down there with your hand. Avoid reusing washcloths and cleaning the inside of your vagina, which can disrupt the natural bacteria. (The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, so it will take care of its own internal hygiene.)
You also want to avoid wearing tight pants and underwear that hold in heat and moisture. Opt for loose, breathable fabric and change out of wet clothes and bathing suits.
Do eat gut-friendly foods with lactobacillus
When it comes to supporting vaginal health, Stephens says it all comes down to your gut.
This is because your gut and your vagina are connected, and bacteria from your gut can travel to your vagina. One of the most important bacteria shared between your gut and vagina are lactobacilli.
“One thing that lives in the vagina is lactobacillus, a friendly vaginal bacterium. It is used to create acid in your vagina,” says Stephens. “It is essential to support that.”
Adding foods such as yogurt, kimchi and miso — which are high in lactobacillus — will help restore and maintain vaginal balance.
“Consuming things that can promote better gut health will end up promoting a better concentration of lactobacillus in the vagina,” shares Stephens. “Therefore, having a more acidic vagina will equal a healthier vagina.”
Diet, hygiene and lifestyle changes will go a long way in promoting vaginal health. But if you do experience any symptoms or notice a change in your vagina, visit your primary doctor or gynecologist for diagnosis and treatment.