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Vaginal infections

If you have pain, itching, or other symptoms around your vagina, don’t try to treat them yourself. Don’t risk your health. See a doctor or other health care provider who can figure out the cause and right treatment.

Signs that you may have an infection include itching, burning, or pain in or around your vagina. If you’ve had sexual contact with someone, these signs may mean that you have a sexually transmitted infection. Not all vaginal infections are caused by sexual contact. But any time you have itching, burning, or pain, you need to see a doctor to get treated. This section explains the types of infections you can get without sexual contact.

Types of infections top

Two common vaginal infections are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) happens when a certain kind of bacteria (a type of germ) that’s in your vagina grows too much. Possible symptoms include:

  • A bad smell from your vagina that might seem “fishy”
  • More discharge (fluid) from your vagina than you normally have
  • Discharge that is gray or white and “milky”
  • Itching around your vagina

It’s important to see your doctor if you have symptoms. BV can be treated with antibiotics. If BV is not treated, though, it can cause other serious health problems.

Yeast infections happen when a fungus (a type of germ) that’s usually in the vagina grows too much. Possible symptoms include:

  • Burning, redness, and swelling of the vagina and the vulva
  • Pain when you urinate
  • Pain during sex
  • A thick, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese and does not have a bad smell
  • A rash on the outside of your vagina

Lots of women think they have a yeast infection when they really have something else. Before trying to treat yourself with an over-the-counter medicine, it’s important to talk with a doctor. That’s especially true if you’ve never had a yeast infection before or if you have them often.

Sometimes you may have symptoms that make you believe you have a vaginal infection, but you instead have a urinary tract infection.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) happen when bacteria get inside the parts of your body that are involved in making, storing, or removing urine, like your bladder. Symptoms of a urinary tract infection include:

  • Burning when you urinate
  • Feeling a need to urinate frequently
  • Feeling a strong need to urinate but only a little urine comes out
  • Back or stomach pain
  • Cloudy or dark urine
  • Fever and chills
  • Blood in your urine — if that happens, tell a doctor right away

UTIs can be cured with antibiotics.

Ways to avoid infections top

You can’t always prevent vaginal infections. But here are some steps you can take to lower your risk:

  • Help keep the bacteria in your vagina balanced. Wash your vagina and bottom every day with mild soap. When you go to the bathroom, wipe from your vagina toward the back, not the other way.
  • Keep your vagina cool — bacteria love the heat! Avoid tight underwear or clothes made of synthetic fibers that can trap heat. Wear cotton or cotton-crotch underwear.
  • Change out of wet bathing suits and exercise clothes as soon as possible. Bacteria like wet places too!
  • Don't douche. Putting water or other products into your vagina removes some of the normal bacteria that protect you from infection.
  • Avoid scented hygiene products like bubble bath, sprays, pads, and tampons. They can irritate your vagina and lead to an infection.
  • Change your underwear every day, so you don’t let germs near your vagina.
  • Drink lots of water. This can help wash out your urinary tract.

Having sex may increase your odds of some infections even if they’re not considered sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence is the safest way to avoid infections. If you are having sex, use a latex condom to lower your risk and protect your health. You can use a polyurethane condom if you or your partner has a latex allergy.


Content last reviewed October 13, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.