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Vaginal infections

Help for 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 professional who can figure out the cause and right treatment.

Signs that you may have a vaginal infection include itching, burning, pain in or around your vagina, or a problem with your vaginal discharge (fluid). If you've had sexual contact with someone, these signs may mean that you have a sexually transmitted disease (also known as an STD or STI, which means sexually transmitted infection). Not all vaginal infections are caused by sexual contact. Keep in mind that any time you have itching, burning, or pain in or around your vagina, you need to see a doctor to get treated.

This section explains types of infections you can get without having sex. You can learn about:

Abnormal discharge Arrow Image top

You may wonder if the fluid, or discharge, that comes out of your vagina is a sign of infection. Discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle, but it normally may look clear, cloudy white, or yellowish. There is no need to worry if you have normal-looking discharge. Signs of possible problems include discharge that is:

  • Green or gray
  • Smelly
  • Foamy or lumpy

Problems with your discharge may be a sign of infection. Keep reading to learn more about vaginal infections and how to prevent them.

Types of vaginal infections Arrow Image top

Two common vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.

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) than you usually have and that is gray or white
  • 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, it sometimes may cause serious health problems, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (though this is rare).

BV usually happens to people who have sex, but you can also get it without having sex. Experts don’t know exactly what causes BV. The best way to avoid BV is to avoid having sex. If you are having sex, use a condom to protect your health. Douching also increases the chances that you’ll get BV.

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 (pee)
  • Pain during sex
  • A thick, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese and does not have a bad smell
  • A red rash on the outside of your vagina (this is rare)

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 make, store, or remove urine, like your bladder. Symptoms of a urinary tract infection include:

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

Most UTIs are not serious, but some can lead to serious problems, including kidneys that don't work well. UTIs can be cured with antibiotics.

Ways to avoid vaginal infections Arrow Image top

You can’t always prevent vaginal infections. But you can take steps to help keep your vagina (and your bladder) healthy:

  • Keep your genital area clean. Wash the outside of your vagina and bottom every day with mild soap. When you go to the bathroom, wipe from the front of your body toward the back, not the other way.
  • Keep your vagina cool. Bacteria love the heat! Avoid tight underwear or clothes made of synthetic fibers like rayon and polyester 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.
  • Change your underwear every day, so you don’t let germs near your vagina.
  • Drink enough liquids. This can help wash out your urinary tract and help prevent infections there. You’ll know that you’re drinking enough if your urine (pee) is light yellow or almost clear.
  • Avoid scented hygiene products like bubble bath, sprays, scented pads, and scented tampons. They can be irritating.

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.

 

Content last reviewed April 15, 2014
Page last updated May 23, 2014

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

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