Guide to vaginal infections: Can they be sexually transmitted? And everything else you need to know
The vagina. A thing of beauty. Of pleasure and of pain. We’re not sure where we’re going with this – but however great the female vulva may be, it ain’t immune to infection.
If something down below doesn’t feel quite right, or looks unusual, read on to find out more about what’s happening between your lovely legs.
Symptoms of vaginal infections include…
- Pain when you have sex
- Pain when you pass urine
- Abnormal vaginal discharge (unusual colour and/or smell)
- Irritated and/or sore vulva (the skin around the outside of your vagina)
- Vaginal itching
- Bleeding or spotting between your periods or after you have sex
- Pain in your lower abdomen or pelvis
- Lumps, redness, swelling, blisters or ulcers on your vulva or anus
Types of vaginal infection or vaginitis
- Thrush – a common yeast infection
- Bacterial vaginosis – a bacterial infection (the balance of bacteria inside the vagina is disrupted)
- Trichomoniasis – STI caused by a tiny parasite
- Chemical irritation – e.g. from perfumed soap, toiletries, some sanitary products, washing powder etc., or from spermicide (a chemical sometimes used on condoms that kills sperm)
- Chlamydia – STI caused by bacteria
- Gonorrhoea – STI caused by bacteria
- Genital herpes – STI caused by herpes simplex virus
- Genital warts – STI caused by human papilloma virus
Diagnosis of common vaginal infections
In order to diagnose vaginal infections, doctors will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They may need a urine sample, and may ask to look inside your vagina using a speculum (an instrument to gently open your vagina, also used for smear tests). Doctors may take a swab of a sample of discharge or cells from inside your vagina for testing.
How to treat vaginal infections
Treatments for vaginitis differ, depending on the issue. Yeast infections, like vaginal thrush, are usually treated with antifungal medicines, while bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics.
Other treatments available are creams, pessaries or vaginal tablets containing oestrogen, while HRT (hormone replacement therapy) may be prescribed in the case of vaginal atrophy – the thinning of the lining of the vagina, usually after menopause.
Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, genital warts and herpes are all passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact or in bodily fluids during sex. A condom provides good protection against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs), though genital warts and herpes may still be passed on by contact with skin that’s not covered with a condom.
Other things you can do to reduce your risk of getting a vaginal infection include not using perfumed soaps, antiseptic feminine hygiene wash or vaginal douches.
And, in order to prevent spreading the infection to even more people, contact previous and current partners. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, sexual health clinics can send anonymous notifications on your behalf if you provide them with details.
How to make yourself more comfortable if you’re in pain
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothes and underwear
- Use plain rather than perfumed soaps, toiletries, antiseptics or vaginal deodorants
- Use plain water or E45 to wash
- Have a bath in salt water
- Put petroleum jelly (e.g. Vaseline) or a mild anaesthetic gel on the affected area
- Don’t scrub with a flannel or sponge
- Take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- Use sanitary towels rather than tampons if you’re using intravaginal creams or pessaries to treat an infection
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But I really want to have sex…
Well, if you have mild to moderate vaginitis, use a lubricant to help relieve pain and discomfort during sex. Alternatively, just wait until the infection has buggered off.
And, as we mentioned above, many of these infections can be passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact or in bodily fluids during sex. A condom provides good protection against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs), though genital warts and herpes may still be passed on by contact with skin that’s not covered with a condom.