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Common vaginal infections

About common vaginal infections

Vaginal infections occur when bacteria, fungi or viruses grow in and around the vaginal area. Anything that lowers the acidity of the vagina can cause a vaginal infection, while some other infections are transferred by sexual contact.

Vaginal infections are common. For example, around three-quarters of Australian women will have thrush in their lives.

Symptoms of common vaginal infections

It's normal and healthy for a woman of childbearing age to have a vaginal discharge. The amount and colour of the discharge can change during your menstrual cycle, sexual excitement and pregnancy. However, vaginal discharge can also signal infection.

Symptoms of vaginal infection include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge (may differ in colour and smell unpleasant)
  • Irritation and soreness of the vulva (the skin around the outside of the vagina) and vaginal itching
  • Pain during sex
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Abdominal pains
  • Redness, swelling, lumps, blisters or ulceration of the vulva or anus
  • Pain when passing urine.

It's important that you see your GP if you have any of these symptoms.

What are some causes of vaginal infections?

Certain types of bacteria live naturally inside the vagina. They produce acid, which helps to keep the environment at a certain pH to help your body fight infection. However, many factors such as hormonal changes, stress, or even using soap to clean the genital area can alter the acid levels in the vagina. This can mean that bacteria living naturally inside the vagina, which normally don’t cause problems, are able to grow and multiply and cause a vaginal infection.

A foreign body, such as a forgotten tampon, can also encourage bacterial growth and cause an infection. It can produce a life-threatening complication known as 'toxic shock syndrome', but this is rare.

Vaginal infections can also be caused through unprotected sexual intercourse or skin-to-skin contact. These are known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Diagnosis of common vaginal infections

If you have any symptoms, visit your GP who may refer you to a sexual health clinic for specialist treatment. There are details about how you can contact your local sexual health clinic in the Further Information section below.

There are a number of ways to test for a vaginal infection:

  • You may be asked to provide a sample of urine.
  • A doctor or nurse may look inside your vagina, using a speculum (which is also used for smear tests) and take a swab (similar to a small round cotton bud). The swab picks up a sample of cells.

The samples are then sent to a laboratory for testing.

Types of common vaginal infections

Thrush

Almost all women have a type of yeast called Candida albicans growing harmlessly in the vagina. A change in the vaginal environment can mean the yeast multiplies in number and this causes the symptoms of thrush (vaginal candidiasis).

Possible triggers of thrush include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Antibiotics
  • Diabetes
  • Using perfumed soaps or feminine hygiene sprays
  • The contraceptive pill
  • Tight underwear.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

Bacterial vaginosis is vaginal inflammation that is caused when bacteria that normally inhabit in the vagina, such as Gardnerella vaginalis, multiply into large numbers upsetting the natural balance of vaginal bacteria. This can trigger symptoms such as a vaginal discharge which is usually thin and grey with a fishy smell.

Possible triggers of BV include:

  • Use of perfumed soaps or feminine hygiene sprays
  • Insertion of the intra-uterine system (IUS or the coil) of contraception.

BV is not classed as a sexually transmitted infection, although there may be a link with having a new sexual partner or a high lifetime number of sexual partners.

If left untreated, BV may increase your risk of:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Contracting viral infections
  • Miscarriage
  • Premature labour
  • Having a low birth-weight baby.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. This is usually transmitted during unprotected sex.

Symptoms of trichomoniasis can include abundant yellow-green vaginal discharge with a strong odour. However, half of women with trichomoniasis don't have any symptoms.

If left untreated, trichomoniasis infection may increase your risk of:

  • Contracting viral infections
  • Premature labour
  • Having a low birth-weight baby.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is one the most common notifiable STIs in Australia. It is caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, which destroys the cells of the lining of the cervix and other tissues. Many people have chlamydia without knowing it. Most women and half of men with chlamydia don't have any symptoms.

In women, chlamydia infection can spread to the womb (uterus), ovaries and fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Between one and four women in 10 with untreated chlamydia will get PID. PID can damage the fallopian tubes and increase the risk of:

  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Infertility.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which is passed on during unprotected sexual intercourse.

Symptoms of gonorrhoea usually appear within two weeks of infection, and may include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Pain on urination
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain.

However, half of all women with gonorrhoea don't have any symptoms.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) being passed on during unprotected sexual contact. Once infected, HSV stays in your body for the rest of your life.

Symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • Painful blisters
  • Pain on urination
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Fever
  • Tiredness.

Genital warts

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted viral infection in Australia, particularly in young men and women.

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which makes cells grow unusually. You can catch genital warts by having sex and/or skin-to-skin contact with someone who has them.

Genital warts appear as small round lumps on or around the vulva, upper thighs, cervix, vagina or anus. It can take several months or even years after infection for the warts to appear. However, many people with the virus don't develop warts and may not know they have the infection.

Treatment of common vaginal infections

Some treatments are available from your pharmacist as well as on prescription from your GP. Always read the accompanying consumer medicine information leaflet and if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask your pharmacist or GP.

Thrush

Most infections respond to antifungal treatments such as imidazole cream or pessaries or a one-off fluconazole tablet. These are available from your pharmacist without a prescription. The infection clears up completely in most women. If you are pregnant, see your GP before using any medications to treat thrush.

If your symptoms don't improve in seven to 14 days or the symptoms come back, see your GP who may prescribe different antifungal medicines. There isn't any evidence to suggest treating a male partner helps, unless he has a rash or a sore penis.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

Antibiotic treatment clears BV infection in most women. Antibiotics are usually given in tablet form although sometimes a gel or cream may be prescribed. Male sexual partners don't need treatment.

Trichomoniasis

If you have trichomoniasis, your GP will refer you to a sexual health clinic.

Trichomoniasis can sometimes get better without treatment, but antibiotics are usually prescribed. Antibiotics can be taken as a course of tablets for several days to a week or as a one-off large dose. As symptoms are less common in men, your partner may be unaware he is infected so sexual partners need to be treated regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms or not.

Chlamydia and gonorrhoea

Both chlamydia and gonorrhoea infections are treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotics may be given as a one-off dose, or for chlamydia you may be given a week-long course. Sexual partners need to be treated as symptoms are less common in men, and your partner may be unaware he is infected.

Genital warts

Treatment depends on where the warts are, what they look like and how many you have. It may consist of using creams or liquids, surgery, cryotherapy (freezing) or laser treatment.

Some women find that the warts go after one treatment whereas others find it takes several treatments.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes can be treated very successfully although there's no cure. You may be prescribed anti-viral tablets which stop the herpes virus from multiplying. You must take them as prescribed. You may also need to use a local anaesthetic ointment on your vulva to help ease pain.

Currently, two human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines exist. Whilst both of these protect against the types of HPV that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers, one of the vaccines also protects against the two types of HPV that cause 90 per cent of genital warts. For more information about the HPV vaccines, talk to your GP or local pharmacist.

Prevention of common vaginal infections

Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital warts and herpes, and trichomoniasis are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, especially during unprotected sexual intercourse. All sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are preventable and a condom provides good protection against many STIs.

You can reduce your risk of having thrush or BV by:

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.