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Vaginitis and Vaginal Infections

"Vaginitis" is a medical term used to describe various conditions that cause infection or inflammation of the vagina. Vulvovaginitis refers to inflammation of both the vagina and vulva (the external female genitals). These conditions can result from an infection caused by organisms such as bacteria, yeast, or viruses, as well as by irritations from chemicals in creams, sprays, or even clothing that is in contact with this area. In some cases, vaginitis results from organisms that are passed between sexual partners.

The vagina creates its own environment and maintains a balance among the normal bacteria found there and the hormonal changes in a woman's body. Vaginitis occurs when the vaginal ecosystem has been changed by certain medications such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptive preparations (oral and topical), douches, vaginal medication, sexual intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases, stress, and change in sexual partners.

Some vaginal infections are transmitted through sexual contact, but others such as yeast infections probably are not. Vaginitis often is caused by infections, which create distress and discomfort. Some infections are associated with more serious diseases.

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Three vaginal infections are most common. Their causes are quite different, their symptoms similar, and treatment varies:

Many women often mistakenly think they have a "yeast infection" and treat themselves when, in fact, they have a similar vaginal infection that will not respond to self-treatment with over-the-counter yeast medications. A recent study by the American Social Health Association found that 70% of women self-treated vaginal infections before calling a health care provider. Most often, they incorrectly thought they had a yeast infection but actually had bacterial vaginosis.

The important thing is not to guess, but to recognize and differentiate the symptoms if you develop a vaginal infection. See your health care provider for precise testing and the most appropriate and effective treatment right away.

Causes of Vaginal Infections

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginitis, accounting for 50% of cases. BV is caused by a change in the bacteria normally found in the vagina and causes an overgrowth of organisms such as Gardnerella vaginalis.

  • Risk factors include pregnancy, intrauterine device (IUD) use, and frequent douching. It is associated with sexual activity, possibly a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners.
  • You do not get BV from toilet seats, bedding, or swimming pools.
  • In the United States, as many as 16% of pregnant women have BV. This varies by race and ethnicity from 6% in Asians and 9% in whites to 16% in Hispanics and 23% in African Americans.

Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. This is also called candidiasis, genital candidiasis, or vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC). A yeast infection can spread to other parts of the body, including skin, mucous membranes, heart valves, esophagus, and other areas. It can cause life-threatening systemic infections in people with weakened immune defenses (such as women who are pregnant and people who are HIV positive, have diabetes, or are taking steroids). 

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