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.
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:
It's important that you see your GP if you have any of these symptoms.
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).
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:
The samples are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
However, half of all women with gonorrhoea don't have any symptoms.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
National STI Prevention Program: Sexual Health Campaign
Find your local sexual health clinic
Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia
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Last published: 30 July 2011
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