By Kendall McKenzie
If you’re the proud owner of a vagina, chances are, at one point, something has gone awry down there. Itching, burning, funky discharge, “interesting” smells — they’re practically a rite of passage. Yes, it’s super craptastic, but the good news is it’s also typically easily curable.
You should always see a health care provider when you have discomfort or unusual symptoms. But, in the meantime, check out this handy guide to what happens when our goodies go bad.
What is it? A fungal infection caused by the overgrowth of normal yeast that live in your vagina. The type of yeast most often associated with yeast infections is called candida.
What are the symptoms? Yeast infections are accompanied by a thicker, whiter, clumpier discharge that’s usually odorless. You might notice a creamy, whitish coating in and around the vagina. There also tends to be some pretty intense itching, burning, and redness in or around the vagina that gets worse as the infection progresses. In extreme cases, you may get fissures or sores. Sex or any kind of vaginal penetration probably doesn’t feel great, and vulva irritation may make peeing sting a bit. Penises and scrotums can get yeast infections too, though it’s not as common.
Terrific. How does this happen? Most people have small amounts of yeast in their vaginas, but if the natural environment of the vagina is upset, yeast may grow out of control and cause an infection. Lots of things can tweak a vaginal ecosystem: normal fluctuations in hormone levels; antibiotics, cortisone, and other drugs; pregnancy; diabetes; a weakened immune system, or a reaction to another person’s genital chemistry.
Can I get it from sex? Yeast infections aren’t thought to be contagious, but certain aspects of sex, such as exposure to another person’s yum-yums, can stimulate the growth of yeast and lead to infections.
How do I get rid of it? Yeast infections are usually easily cured in a few days with simple anti-fungal medications. There are plenty of over-the-counter treatments for yeast infections, like Monistat, that involve inserting medicated cream or suppositories into your vagina. There’s also an oral, single-dose pill available (called Diflucan or Fluconazole), which must be prescribed by a doctor.
Avoid sex until the infection clears up. Friction doesn’t exactly create the ideal healing environment, and vaginal yeast infection treatments contain oil, which can break latex condoms. Try not to scratch, which exacerbates itchiness and can also break the skin, spread germs, and lead to more infection. There are over-the-counter creams that you can use on your vulva to help calm irritation.
A.K.A.: BV, vaginal bacteriosis.
What is it? A bacterial infection that develops when the healthy bacteria in your vagina are thrown off balance. Gardnerella vaginalis is the vagina’s most common bacterial resident and BV ringleader.
What are the symptoms? Bacterial vaginosis doesn’t always have symptoms, or symptoms can be intermittent or mild enough that you don’t notice them. There’s sometimes a little itching or burning during urination, but many people don’t experience any discomfort. Vaginal discharge may increase and be greyish, off-white, thin, and/or foamy. One of the more common side-effects of bacterial vaginosis is an unpleasant, fishy smell, especially after sex. Ahoy!
Awesome. How does this happen? Just like with yeast, we have a healthy community of bacteria and acidity in our vaginas, and an upset in your vagina’s pH balance can screw with those bacterial levels. Douches, vaginal deodorants, or other irritating products are common culprits. Sex can also trigger an imbalance.
Can I get it from sex? Probably not, though the jury’s still out. However, rollin’ in the hay with a new sex buddy (or multiple sex buddies) is believed to increase your risk. And, sometimes our personal body chemistry just reacts to a partner’s genital bacteria or semen in undesirable ways.
How to get rid of it: Bacterial vaginosis is easily cured with antibiotics, which are taken either orally or vaginally. Make sure you use all of the medication as directed by your doctor, even if your symptoms go away sooner. And, take it easy on the sex to give your vagina a break while it heals. Some people have found that probiotics help treat and prevent recurrences. Your doctor can help figure out the best way to deal if you’re plagued with chronic BV.
A.K.A.: Trich (pronounced “trick.”)
What is it? A super-common, but not well-known, sexually transmitted infection caused by a protozoan (a microscopic, one-celled parasite) called trichomona. Trich just is one of many STIs, but it has its own section because it’s one of the most common causes of vaginal irritation. More than eight million Americans get a visit from the trich fairy every year.
What are the symptoms? As with most STIs, trich often has no symptoms, and many people don’t know they have it (which can make it tough to pinpoint when and how it was transmitted). Symptoms of trich usually take 3-28 days to develop and include frothy, yellow-green, and/or smelly discharge (similar to BV), spotting or bloody discharge, itching, swelling, painful, burning pee, and frequent urination. Trich infects penises also — signs include discharge from the urethra and the urge to pee a lot — but men very rarely show any symptoms.
Super. How does this happen? Trichomoniosis is extraordinarily contagious and easily passed during any kind of sex stuff that involves contact with semen and vaginal fluids, which can include vaginal intercourse, sharing sex toys, and touching your genitals after touching a partner’s. Condoms and other barriers can reduce your risk by preventing the exchange of sexual fluids.
Can I get it from sex? You betcha! So, the best way to prevent trich is to use latex or polyurethane condoms every time you have vaginal or anal sex, even if neither of you have any signs of infection.
How to get rid of it: Trichomoniasis is curable with medicine. Because trich is sexually transmitted, it’s REALLY important that anyone who has it, their partner(s), and their partners’ partners all be treated and take the entire course of medication, even if they don’t have symptoms. You should avoid sex until your treatment is complete and you test negative for trich. This all may seem like a total bummer, but remember that trich is really common and easily curable, so keep your chin up.
A.K.A.: STIs, sexually transmitted diseases, STDs
What are they? Very, very common infections passed from an infected person to others during sexual contact. STIs that can cause vaginal irritation include syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, herpes, chancroid, genital warts, scabies, crabs (pubic lice), and molluscum contagiosum. HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) is a very serious STI that impacts the immune system, which can make you more susceptible to vaginal infections.
What are the symptoms? There are a number of STIs, and thus, a number of symptoms. These can be similar to other vaginal infections and include frequent and/or painful urination, unusual discharge (different colors, odors, etc.), genital irritation and swelling, fever, vaginal bleeding, sores, and pain during sex. Folks with penises may experience discharge from the urethra, painful and frequent peeing, and genital swelling. But most people with STIs don’t show any symptoms at all, so feelin’ just dandy doesn’t always mean you’re in the clear.
Fabulous. How does this happen? STIs are spread through exposure to an infected person’s semen, vaginal fluids, or blood, and/or skin-to-skin contact between mouths, penises, vaginas, and buttholes.
Are they sexually transmitted? Duh. STIs are incredibly common, and anybody who does any kind of sex that involves genital or oral skin-to-skin contact and fluid exchange is at risk. Because so many people don’t show symptoms, the only way to know for sure if you or a partner has an STI is to get tested. Always using barriers (like condoms, dental dams, and rubber or nitrile gloves) during sex and getting tested regularly are your best bets to prevent STIs.
How to get rid of ‘em: STIs that are caused by bacteria or parasites are totally curable – hooray! Make sure you take every dose of the medication your doctor prescribes, and avoid sex until you finish the entire regimen and test negative. Your partner(s) (and their partners, and so on) should also be treated, even if they don’t have symptoms, so the STI isn’t passed back and forth or to other people.
Most STIs that are caused by a virus stick around in your body forever, but there are still treatments available which can help prevent or lessen symptoms. Sometimes our body suppresses or naturally clears certain viral STIs on its own, and not everybody experiences chronic symptoms. In any case, your doctor is your friend, and they can help you manage whatever STIs life may throw your way.
People tend to get particularly freaked out about STIs, even though they’re really common and often curable. But the bottom line is, more than half of us will experience at least one STI at least once in our lives, so try not to be embarrassed, ashamed, or angry if it happens to you. Hugs!
What is it? UTIs are bacterial infections in your urinary system, including the bladder and urethra (the tube that carries pee out of your bladder). While not technically a vaginal infection, it’s included in our guide because UTIs are a super-common, super bummer for vulva owners.
What are the symptoms? Burning during urination, having the urge to pee frequently or even when your bladder is empty, blood and/or pus in your urine, difficulty controlling when you pee, fever, and back or stomach pain. Because many other conditions, like STIs or vaginitis, can cause these symptoms too, only a doctor can tell you for sure what’s going down.
Wonderful. How does this happen? Pretty damn easily, since infection can occur any time certain harmful bacteria comes in contact with your vulva. Poop germs that find their way up to the urethra — by being wiped into the vulva, migrating during sex business, or even toilet water back-splash — are common perpetrators. Sexually transmitted infections can also trigger UTIs. Because they develop a number of ways, most people aren’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of their UTI.
Can I get it from sex? Nope, but many people find that sex causes or exacerbates UTIs. Sex can lead to a UTI if your sweet action transmits certain bacteria into the urethra, so anything that touches or penetrates an anus — fingers, penises, sex toys, etc. — should be thoroughly washed before coming in contact with other genitals (or anything else, for that matter). Using barriers like condoms, gloves, and dams is also a great way to avoid transferring harmful germs as long as you swap ‘em after any anal fun time. If you discover that certain positions trigger UTIs, maybe don’t bust those out so much. And, peeing before and immediately after sex is a tried-and-true way to prevent UTIs.
How to get rid of it: UTIs are usually easily annihilated with our trusty friend, the antibiotic. As with all antibiotics, make sure you take every dose of medicine as prescribed, even if the symptoms ease up before you finish it. Over-the-counter UTI meds can help with pain, but they won’t cure the infection. Some people who experience chronic UTIs have found that cranberry supplements (tablets or juice — the full-strength stuff, not the sweetened juice cocktail) help prevent recurrences.
It’s really important to get to a doctor if you think you have a UTI because it can lead to a more serious kidney infection if left untreated. Also, my friends who’ve experienced severe UTIs describe the discomfort, on a scale of 1 to 10, as “1,000,000 + laser fire x razor blades.” So get that little demon taken care of ASAP.
Pretty much anything that upsets the chemical balance of your vagina may lead to infections. And, you may not even have an infection; discomfort can also be caused by a reaction (which typically goes away once you stop using whatever’s annoying your vag). People find that they’re allergic to or irritated by different things, but there are a few culprits commonly known to piss off ol’ Jam Master VaJay.
Scented tampons and pads, vaginal deodorants, and perfumed “feminine hygiene” products are high on the s**t list. And, don’t even get me started on douching. (Y’all are hip to how bad douching is, right? How it washes away good, healthy stuff in your vagina? And can throw off its natural ecology? Okay, good.) Other perfumed bath products, laundry products, and even colored toilet paper can trigger a reaction.
Ironically, many things that people use to try to make their vaginas smell “better” may actually lead to infections that make their vaginas smell...like an infected vagina. If you’re concerned about odors, your doctor can tell you if it’s normal or not. Remember, vaginas are self-cleaning, and simply using mild soap and water on your external genitals (vulva and anus) is sufficient.
Things like diaphragms, cervical caps, menstrual cups, sex toys, and latex condoms may be problematic for folks with latex or silicone allergies. It’s also common for people to discover that certain types of lubricants cause reactions. Spermicide in particular may be irritating enough to create microscopic cuts in sensitive genital skin, which can lead to irritation and increase your risk of STIs (the cuts provide easy entry points into your bloodstream). If you use spermicide for pregnancy prevention, you should definitely use condoms also to prevent HIV and other STIs.
For some, an abundance of moisture can also throw their vag balance out of whack. Sporting uncomfortably tight pants, a wet bathing suit, or underwear without a cotton crotch for a long time may cause problems for those with persnickety vaginas. (Natural fabrics like cotton breathe easier and help keep you dry.) Even horseback and bike riding can cause irritation. Again, everyone’s body is different, and what sets one person’s business aflame may do absolutely nothing to another’s.
Along with avoiding irritants, it’s also important to keep harmful germs out of your vagina. Thoroughly clean anything that’s been in your butt before it touches your vulva. Change tampons regularly (every four to eight hours), and wash menstrual cups and sex toys according to their instructions. Use condoms, dental dams, and gloves to prevent the transmission of STIs.
Finally, get to know your genitals. Pay attention to your regular smells and vaginal discharge (these usually change slightly throughout your menstrual cycle). Peeking in your undies, whiffing your crotch, and checking out your goodies with a mirror may seem like new-age silliness, but it’s one of the best ways to know what’s normal for you and what’s not.
Hot damn, that’s a lot of information about your nether regions! Want even more? Head on over to plannedparenthood.org. Thanks for joining me on this vagina vajourney.
Kendall at Planned Parenthood
Beyond serving as a go-to source for vital reproductive care, the folks at Planned Parenthood— a team of knowledgeable experts in medicine, sexual health, and law — are passionate, informed advocates for knowing your own body. Planned Parenthood is here to tackle the big issues.