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Vaginal Problems That Affect Your Sex Life

Vaginal disorders ranging from chronic infections to vaginitis, fibroids, and stress incontinence can damage your sexual health and general well-being.
By Heather Morgan Shott
WebMD Magazine - Feature

I’m 20 years old. My knees are apart, and my feet are anchored in cold metal stirrups. A doctor is shining a bright, hot light between my legs, prodding me gently with a Q-tip, peppering me with questions. I’m here, in a place where no woman wants to be, because the incessant itching, pain, and burning that plagued me for two years has gotten so severe I can barely tolerate underwear, let alone the “luxuries” -- tampons, intercourse, and tight jeans -- that my college roommates take for granted.

As it would turn out, I was in luck on that tepid spring day back in 1998. For this amazingly compassionate Cleveland doctor -- the 11th gynecologist I would see in my quest for answers -- was able to finally give me something nobody else could: A diagnosis of vulvar vestibulitis and a treatment plan.

My story isn’t unique. At some point in their lives, millions of women will suffer from a range of common and less common gynecological or urological conditions, including chronic infections, vulvodynia, vaginal dryness, fibroids, and stress incontinence with intercourse.

While each experience (and diagnosis) is different, many women will discover their illness goes beyond physical symptoms to affect their sex lives and even their general state of mind. Indeed, “these conditions may negatively impact women’s physical, emotional, relational, and/or sexual well-being,” says Helen Coons, PhD, ABPP, president and clinical director of Women’s Mental Health Associates in Philadelphia.

Following are the most commonly diagnosed health problems “down there.”

Vaginitis

The itching, burning, and pain associated with vaginitis results from a disruption in the natural balance of bacteria that live in every healthy vagina. There’s no single cause. Common culprits include hormonal changes due to birth control pills, menopause, or pregnancy as well as chronic medical conditions, such as HIV and diabetes, which weaken the immune system. Frequent sexual intercourse and sex with multiple partners can be to blame as well. Of the many types of infectious and noninfectious vaginitis, the following four are the most common.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is “the most common vaginal infection in women of reproductive age,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Women with BV may have a copious, thin grayish-white discharge -- or they may be symptom-free.

Some studies suggest that untreated BV can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility, so it’s important to seek treatment from a health care provider, says Susan Kellogg, CRNP, PhD, director of Vulvar Pain and Sexual Medicine at the Pelvic & Sexual Health Institute in Philadelphia. Fortunately, BV is easily treated with oral or vaginal antibiotics.

Yeast infections caused by the overgrowth of one of several strains of Candida, a fungus that lives normally in the vagina, are also common; three in four women will have at least one at some point in their life. Women may notice a thick white discharge with a slight odor. However, many women complain of genital itching, soreness, or irritation.

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