The vagina has its own chemical balance, which can be easily disturbed. If the lining of the vagina becomes inflamed, a condition known as vaginitis may develop. This can occur in girls and women of all ages.
There are many different causes of vaginitis.
Non-infectious vaginitis refers to vaginal inflammation that's due to chemical irritants or allergies. Spermicides, douches, detergents, fabric softeners, and latex condoms can all irritate the vaginal lining. Also, some sanitary napkins can cause irritation at the entrance to the vagina.
Atrophic vaginitis may occur after a woman has reached menopause. It results from lower hormone (estrogen) levels and the thinning of the vaginal lining caused by them. This makes the vagina more prone to irritation.
Infectious vaginitis is caused by an infection with bacteria or yeast. Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis and spreads through unprotected sex with an infected partner. Other types of vaginal infections can occur when a woman has a fistula, an abnormal passage connecting the intestine to the vagina. This allows stool to enter the vaginal area, greatly increasing the risk of infections.
Bacterial vaginosis may be due to an imbalance between normally occurring bacteria that protect the vagina and potentially infectious ones. Cigarette smoking, using intrauterine devices, douching, and having multiple sexual partners have all been shown to increase the risk of infection. Bacterial vaginosis is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, however, since it can occur in women who have never had vaginal intercourse.
Yeast infection, also known as vaginal candidiasis, occurs when there is an overgrowth of the yeast called Candida that normally lives in the vagina. Yeast infections can occur if you're taking antibiotics, if you have high levels of estrogen (for instance, during pregnancy), if you have uncontrolled diabetes, or if your immune system is suppressed. You are also at higher risk for vaginal yeast infections if you are under stress from a poor diet, lack of sleep, or illness, or if you are taking an oral contraceptive pill.
Newborns can also have vaginal inflammation and discharge for the first couple weeks of life, caused by exposure to the mother's estrogen just prior to birth.
General symptoms of vaginitis can include discharge, odour, irritation, and itching. In some cases, women have no symptoms even if they have a bacterial infection. Generally, bacterial vaginitis causes itching and burning during urination or after sexual intercourse. There may also be whitish discharge with an unpleasant ("fishy") odour. The discharge may be more noticeable after sex.
Symptoms of trichomoniasis can be quite severe for some women, whereas others may have no symptoms at all. Trichomoniasis causes vaginal soreness and, sometimes, abdominal discomfort. It can lead to heavy yellow-green or grey discharge accompanied by an unpleasant odour. Urination and sexual intercourse can be painful. If left untreated during pregnancy, trichomoniasis can lead to premature labour.
Symptoms of yeast infections include vaginal itching and painful urination. The labia (vaginal lips) often swell and can be quite sore. There may be a thick and whitish discharge that can look like cottage cheese. Yeast infections can also lead to pain or discomfort during sex.
Irritant or allergic vaginitis can cause mild-to-severe itching or burning of the vagina, which often becomes swollen and red. This type of vaginitis doesn't cause a vaginal discharge.
Atrophic vaginitis often causes no symptoms. However, some women have dry, sore vaginas, which may be red and irritated. Sexual intercourse is painful and is often followed by a burning feeling. Occasional spotting (light bleeding) and watery discharge are common with this type of vaginitis.