Everything You Should Know About Vaginal Infections
Sometimes a vaginal infection may not present any symptoms. But othertimes, common symptoms of an infection include itching, changes in color or amount of discharge, and pain during urination.
Vaginitis refers to a few different conditions that can cause infection or inflammation of your vagina. The similar umbrella term vulvovaginitis describes inflammation of both your vagina and your vulva, the external part of your genitals.
Vaginal infections can have plenty of different causes, and they’re fairly common. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says up to a third of people with vaginas will develop vaginitis at some point in life.
These infections can happen at any time, but they’re most common during your reproductive years, or your late teens to early 40s.
You can develop a vaginal infection without having penetrative sex, or any other type of sex. In other words, vaginitis is not the same as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), though certain types of sexual activity can sometimes factor in — more details on that below.
Read on to learn more about the main types of vaginitis, plus their symptoms, causes, and tips for getting treatment and relief.
Vaginal infections don’t always cause noticeable symptoms.
If you do develop symptoms, you’ll likely notice some of these common ones:
- vaginal itching and burning
- vaginal soreness and discomfort
- inflamed, flushed, or swollen skin around your vagina and vulva
- a change in the amount of vaginal discharge
- a change in the color of vaginal discharge
- pain or burning during urination
- pain during penetrative vaginal sex
- vaginal bleeding or spotting
You might have just one or a few of the symptoms listed above. If your symptoms don’t go away within a few days, or if they get worse, it’s important to connect with a healthcare professional to get a diagnosis and treatment.
You might also notice some of these symptoms, especially a painful or burning sensation while urinating, if you have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Here’s how to recognize a UTI.
Types of vaginal infections
Vaginal infections share a lot of the same symptoms, which can make it harder to recognize exactly what’s going on.
That said, each type of infection does involve a few unique symptoms:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV often causes a thin grayish-white, greenish, or yellow discharge. This discharge can have a fish-like odor that tends to become stronger after penetrative vaginal sex. You may not notice much itching.
- Yeast infections. These commonly involve vaginal and vulval itching, soreness, and burning. With yeast infections, you might also notice swelling in the labia, or the folds of skin on the outside of your vagina. Any discharge will usually be white and lumpy, with a texture that some say resembles cottage cheese.
- Trichomoniasis. This infection typically causes both vaginal itching and a fish-like odor. Along with a greenish-yellow, frothy discharge, you might also notice swelling, irritation, and inflammation in your vagina and vulva. Other symptoms of trichomoniasis include pain during vaginal sex, lower abdominal pain, and burning and pain during urination.
- Atrophic vaginitis. This isn’t an infection, exactly, but it can increase your chances of developing vaginal infections and UTIs. With atrophic vaginitis, you might notice signs that resemble symptoms of other infections, like vaginal itching, burning, dryness, and changes in discharge.
Treatment for vaginal infections will depend on what caused the infection.
A doctor or clinician may prescribe:
- metronidazole (in tablet, cream, or gel form) or clindamycin (in cream or gel form) to treat a bacterial infection
- antifungal creams or suppositories to treat a yeast infection. You can also purchase yeast infection medications without a prescription at your local pharmacy or drugstore, but you’ll want to connect with a healthcare professional if the infection doesn’t go away or if it keeps coming back.
- metronidazole or tinidazole tablets to treat trichomoniasis
- estrogen creams or tablets to help treat severe vaginal dryness and irritation associated with atrophic vaginitis
Healthcare professionals will usually also recommend avoiding irritants, such as strong or perfumed soap, scented tampons or pads, and douches.
In basic terms, vaginal infections tend to develop when something affects the usual balance of bacteria and yeast in your vagina.
Here are the common causes of vaginal infections by infection type:
- Bacterial infections. An overgrowth of certain bacteria naturally found in your vagina can cause BV. While BV isn’t considered an STI, sexual contact — including hand-to-genital, oral, and penetrative vaginal sex — can lead to bacteria overgrowth and increase your chances of developing BV.
- Yeast infections. Yeast infections are usually caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. Various factors, including antibiotics, hormonal changes, a compromised immune system, and stress, can all reduce the number of antifungal bacteria in your vagina, leading to an overgrowth of yeast. This overgrowth can cause symptoms of a yeast infection.
- Trichomoniasis. The protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis causes this infection. Most people contract trichomoniasis by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex without an internal or external condom. Still, some
evidencesuggests you can also contract it through shared bathwater. Other rare (but possible) methods of transmission include damp toilet seats, pools, and shared towels or damp clothing.
- Vaginal atrophy. This condition generally develops after menopause, but it can also happen when you’re nursing or any other time when you experience a drop in estrogen levels. Reduced hormone levels can cause vaginal thinning and dryness, which can lead to vaginal inflammation.
- Douching. Flushing your vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, baking soda, iodine, or other antiseptic ingredients might seem like a good way to keep it clean. But the truth is that your vagina can keep itself clean. This practice actually reduces healthy bacteria in your vagina, making infections more likely.
- Soap, body wash, and perfume. Washing your vagina with soap and body wash, or spraying it with perfume, can also disrupt its natural pH. While it’s absolutely OK to rinse your vulva and vagina with plain water, any other product or fragrance can kill healthy bacteria in your vagina and make infection more likely.
- Spermicidal contraceptives. This method of birth control might come in gel, film, or suppository form. You insert it directly into your vagina, where it dissolves to kill sperm and prevent unwanted pregnancy. While spermicides work well for some people, they can lead to vaginal irritation and inflammation, and they can make vaginal infections more likely.
- Tight-fitting or synthetic clothing. Underwear and bottoms that can’t “breathe” can cause vaginal irritation by trapping moisture and preventing airflow, which can make infections more likely. Wearing very tight bottoms, or leaving on wet bottoms after a workout or swim, can have a similar effect.
- Detergent and fabric softener. Noticed symptoms shortly after changing your laundry products? Scented detergent and fabric softener can also affect vaginal pH and contribute to yeast infections.
In some cases, a healthcare professional might not be able to determine the cause of your vaginal infection. This condition is known as nonspecific vulvovaginitis. It can occur in vagina-havers of any age, but it’s more common in young people who haven’t entered puberty.
A doctor or clinician can help diagnose a vaginal infection.
You can also use an at-home vaginal pH test, which you can find online or in some drugstores, to help identify a yeast infection or BV.
If you regularly get vaginal infections, especially the same type of infection, a doctor or clinician may ask questions to help diagnose the infection and narrow down the cause.
They might ask:
- about your health history, including any history of vaginal infections
- if you douche or wash your vagina with soap
- about your number of sexual partners
- whether you use condoms during vaginal sex
- if you use scented period products
- about symptoms of other health conditions
Depending on your symptoms, they might also:
- perform a pelvic exam to look for irritation and inflammation
- collect a sample of vaginal discharge to send out for analysis
- swab your cervix to test for STIs, like gonorrhea or chlamydia
- take a urine sample to test for other STIs
Yeast infections and BV share some symptoms, which makes it pretty easy to confuse one for the other.
This can pose a problem when it comes to getting the right treatment. Yeast infections don’t always require professional medical treatment and can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) products. BV, on the other hand, often requires treatment with antibiotics, which you can only get with a prescription.
This chart can help you tell the two apart.
|Bacterial vaginosis||Yeast infection|
|Odor||often causes a fish-like smell, especially after vaginal sex||usually doesn’t cause an odor|
|Discharge texture||thin and watery, sometimes foamy||thick and clumpy|
|Discharge color||grayish or greenish||white|
|Vulva appearance||you may not notice any change||inflamed, reddish, or lighter or darker in color, often with a white coating around the outside of your vagina|
|Itching and burning||not necessarily, though you might notice itching if you have more discharge||very common, especially during urination|
|Treatment||antibiotics||often clears up with OTC treatment|
Not all vaginal infections can be prevented, but these tips can help reduce your chances of developing one:
- Avoid using scented period products, including tampons, pads, and liners.
- Avoid douching, vaginal deodorants, and any scented sprays or perfumes on or in your vagina.
- Bathe in plain water only, since bubble bath and scented body washes can affect vaginal pH. Looking for vagina-friendly cleansers? Check out our guide.
- Wash sex toys after each use, according to their care instructions. Avoid sharing sex toys before cleaning them.
- Wear cotton underwear, or underwear with a cotton crotch, to help improve airflow and prevent vaginal irritation and inflammation. Change your underwear at least once each day, or after exercising.
- Stick to tights, leggings, pantyhose, and workout bottoms that have a cotton crotch.
- Change out of swimsuits and damp workout gear as soon as possible to help prevent excess moisture.
- Switch to an unscented detergent, or one designed for sensitive skin, and skip the perfumed fabric softener.
Using condoms during sex can also help lower your chances of developing a vaginal infection, even though vaginal infections aren’t considered STIs.
Remember, condoms don’t just protect against STIs — they also help prevent changes in vaginal pH that could shift the balance of bacteria in your vagina.
A few things to keep in mind when choosing and using condoms:
- Avoid using flavored condoms for vaginal sex.
- Pre-lubricated or spermicidal condoms can cause irritation, too.
- Always use a new condom for vaginal penetration after anal sex.
Looking for a new brand or type of condom? You’ll find a number of options here.
Some vaginal infections may clear up without treatment from a healthcare professional, especially when you help the infection on its way with home remedies or OTC medications.
That said, infections won’t always improve on their own. You’ll want to make an appointment with your doctor or clinician if you:
- have never had a vaginal infection before
- had a vaginal infection in the past, but you’re having new or different symptoms
- have a vaginal pH
- have symptoms that don’t improve with OTC treatment
- believe you could have been exposed to an STI
- notice yellow or bloody discharge, or discharge with a foul odor
- have other symptoms, including vomiting, fever, or low back and stomach pain
- have difficulty urinating or need to urinate more than usual
If you’ve had a yeast infection before and you recognize the signs, you might not need to make an appointment. You can often treat yeast infections at home with OTC medications.
That said, it never hurts to connect with a doctor or clinician if you get them often. They may be able to prescribe more effective treatment and help you narrow down the cause. You’ll also want to make an appointment if you have any doubts about the type of infection you have.
It’s always recommended to get treatment from a doctor or clinician for any vaginal infection if you’re pregnant or believe you could be pregnant. Untreated vaginal infections can get worse, and some can lead to complications during pregnancy and delivery.
While some vaginal infections clear up with home remedies, OTC treatments, and time, you can’t always treat a vaginal infection at home. Some infections require antibiotics or prescription antifungal medications.
A healthcare professional can offer more guidance on finding an effective treatment and preventing future infections if you have:
- any new or concerning symptoms
- symptoms that don’t go away
- an infection that keeps coming back
Untreated vaginal infections can cause plenty of discomfort, but they usually aren’t serious. Once you get the right diagnosis and treatment, they generally improve quickly.
What Causes Grey Vaginal Discharge?
It typically ranges in color from clear to white. But when it takes on an unusual color, like green or grey, it’s usually your body’s way of telling you that there may be a problem.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) happens when there’s an overgrowth of bacteria in your vagina. Your vagina naturally contains bacteria, but sometimes harmful bacteria can overpower beneficial bacteria, resulting in BV.
One of the hallmark symptoms of BV is grey discharge. The unusual color is due to a collection of bacteria, white blood cells, and cellular waste products.
Other symptoms of BV include:
Keep in mind that BV symptoms can appear very similar to those of a yeast infection. However, the discharge caused by a yeast infection tends to be lumpy and white.
BV requires treatment with prescription antibiotics. Left untreated, it can increase your risk of certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so it’s important to see your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of BV.
While BV is the most likely cause of grey discharge, other things can cause it as well.
Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. One of its most noticeable symptoms is unusually colored discharge.
In some cases it appears grey, but it can also have more of a yellow or green tint.
Other symptoms of trichomoniasis include:
- a burning sensation in the vaginal area
- pain when urinating
- vulvar swelling
Trichomoniasis usually responds well to a single dose of antibiotics.
You can transmit the infection to sexual partners, so it’s important to get tested as soon as you notice symptoms. Be sure to inform your recent sexual partners so they can get tested, too.
Chlamydia is an STI that can cause green or grey vaginal discharge, though it doesn’t always cause symptoms.
When symptoms occur, they can include:
- painful urination
- rectal bleeding or unusual discharge
- unexplained vaginal bleeding
Chlamydia requires antibiotic treatment. And as with trichomoniasis, be sure to tell any recent sexual partners about your diagnosis so they can get tested.
Gonorrhea is an STI that often doesn’t cause symptoms, making it particularly easy to unknowingly transmit to a partner. But some people might notice yellow-green discharge that appears grey to some.
Additional symptoms can include:
- frequent urination
- painful urination
- rectal bleeding
- vaginal bleeding
As with other STIs, gonorrhea requires antibiotic treatment.
In rare cases, grey discharge may be symptom of vaginal cancer. Cancer-related discharge may also look blood-tinged or brown and be heavier than usual.
Other symptoms associated with vaginal cancer include:
- back pain
- leg swelling
- lower abdominal pain
- a lump in the vagina that you can feel
- pain during sex
- pain when urinating
- pelvic pain
Vaginal cancer is easier to treat in its early stages, so it’s best to see your healthcare provider right away if you think you have symptoms of vaginal cancer.
Vaginal discharge is completely normal, but it’s unusual for it to be grey.
In most cases, it’s a sign of either BV or an underlying infection. Both of these require prescription antibiotics, so it’s best to see your healthcare provider regardless of your other symptoms.
During your appointment, be sure to tell them when your symptoms began, any recent changes in your sexual activity, and whether anything makes your symptoms better or worse.
Grey discharge is usually a sign of some kind of infection. Left untreated, these can lead to more serious issues, including pelvic inflammatory disease.
With appropriate treatment, you should make a full recovery within a week of starting antibiotics.
Orange Vaginal Discharge: Is It Normal?
Vaginal discharge is a normal occurrence for women and is often totally normal and healthy. Discharge is a housekeeping function. It allows the vagina to carry away harmful bacteria and dead cells. This process keeps it clean, healthy, and helps prevent infection.
In other cases, vaginal discharge may be a sign of infection or disease if the hue, odor, or consistency is abnormal.
Normal vaginal discharge typically appears as a milky white or clear. If your discharge appears orange, there may be an underlying cause.
Abnormal discharge is a common sign of an underlying medical condition or sexually transmitted infection (STI), especially if the color and smell are irregular. When something disrupts the natural balance of yeast or bacteria in your vagina, the result is often irritation, unusual odor, and irregular discharge color and consistency.
Orange vaginal discharge is often a sign of infection. The color can range from a bright orange to a dark, rusty hue. Two of the most common vaginal infections that may cause colored discharge are bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) occurs when there’s an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your vagina. This is a common infection that can go away on its own in some cases. However, if it becomes recurrent or if your symptoms worsen, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the condition.
Common symptoms of BV include:
- discharge that may appear gray, green, orange, or thin white
- abnormal vaginal odor
- burning sensation while urinating
- a foul, “fishy” smell that becomes stronger after sex
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic ointments, gels, or pills for to treat BV. This infection can become recurrent. If you begin to notice symptoms or if your condition doesn’t improve after treatment, schedule a visit with your doctor to ensure you’re receiving the best care.
Trichomoniasis (trich) is a common STI caused by a parasite. While it’s more prevalent in women, men are also susceptible to trich.
It’s normal to sometimes experience little to no symptoms from this condition. However, some common symptoms associated with trich include:
- genital itching or irritation
- irregular discharge color such as green, yellow, white, or orange
- “fishy” smell
- burning or discomfort while urinating
Treating trich requires antibiotics. It’s not common to get this condition again within three months after receiving treatment. To prevent recurrent infections, make sure you and your sexual partners are appropriately treated. If you notice irregular symptoms from treatment or signs of recurrence, make an appointment with your doctor.
End of your menstrual cycle
Sometimes orange vaginal discharge is simply a sign your menstrual cycle is coming to an end. At the end of a menstrual period, it’s common to notice a brown or rust-colored discharge. This is often blood mixing into vaginal discharge, altering the normal hue.
Orange or pink discharge is also a sign of implantation. This is a stage of pregnancy when an already fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the uterus, usually 10 to 14 days after sex. If you experience vaginal spotting with an orange or pink color that doesn’t result in a period cycle, visit your doctor for further testing.
There may be no cause for alarm if you have orange discharge. But if the orange discharge is accompanied with irregular symptoms and a foul odor, schedule a visit with your gynecologist.
If you’re pregnant and begin to notice irregular colored discharge and symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. Abnormal discharge and issues could cause pregnancy complications and may also affect your health.
Vaginal discharge is normal and often healthy for women. However, if you begin to notice irregular colors and accompanying symptoms, schedule a visit with your doctor. It may be a sign of an STI. Don’t self-diagnose. While your symptoms may go away on their own, it’s possible for them to reappear and worsen without proper treatment.