The vagina is a wonder of nature that creates its own environment and maintains a balance among the normal bacteria found there — even with all the hormonal changes in a woman's body. But this delicate vaginal ecosystem can be thrown off-balance by a variety of factors — including medications such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptive preparations (oral and topical), douches, vaginal medication, sexual intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases, stress, and a change in sexual partners.
Up to 75% of women will experience an inflammatory condition of the vagina at some point in their lives. Medically known as vaginitis, the inflammation in the vaginal area is a common condition resulting from multiple causes. Two of the most common causes of vaginitis are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. While the conditions may present with similar symptoms, they have different causes.
Bacterial vaginosis refers to an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria that are normally present in the vagina. It is not a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The condition used to be referred to as Gardnerella vaginitis; because Gardnerella is a type of bacteria that sometimes causes the infection. While about half of women with bacterial vaginosis are symptom-free, those who do experience symptoms will have vaginal discharge, usually with an unpleasant odor. The discharge is usually gray to white in color but can vary.
Another common type of vaginitis results from vaginal yeast infections caused by the Candida albicans fungus. Yeast is believed to be present in the vagina of 20% to 50% of healthy women. Vaginal yeast infections occur when new yeast is introduced into the vaginal area or when there is an overgrowth of the yeast already present in the vagina (this commonly occurs when the normal protective bacteria are destroyed by antibiotics taken to treat another infection). Yeast can also overgrow and cause infections in women with suppressed immune function. Candida can be transmitted sexually, so it is classified as an STD. Lesbian partners are particularly prone to pass the bacteria back and forth.
Like bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection may result in a vaginal discharge. In this case, if discharge is present, it is usually thick and whitish, with a consistency similar to that of cottage cheese. But the most common symptom is itching in the vulval area; a burning sensation and pain during intercourse or urination are also characteristic symptoms of a yeast vaginitis. Unlike the discharge of bacterial vaginosis, the discharge of a yeast infection is typically odorless.
If you have any of the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis or yeast vaginitis, it is important to contact your health-care practitioner. The symptoms of both conditions are nonspecific and can occur in more serious infections and conditions as well, so a correct diagnosis is important. The diagnosis can usually be established by an examination of the vaginal discharge under a microscope if it is not apparent from the symptoms alone. Both conditions can be effectively treated with antibiotics, and an accurate diagnosis ensures the appropriate antibiotic treatment.
The important thing is not to guess about your condition! You need to be proactive about protecting your sexual and reproductive health.