What Is Vaginitis? Women’s Doctors Explain

Data show that most women experience this uncomfortable condition at some point in their lives. Here's how doctors and scientists explain vaginitis.

Vaginitis is a broad term that refers to inflammation of the vagina, explains Karyn Eilber, MD, professor of urology and associate professor of obstetrics & gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Marina del Rey, CA.

Dr. Eilber says this vaginal inflammation can result from infection, irritation or even a lack of estrogen.

According to a 2018 report in American Family Physician, bacterial vaginosis (sometimes referred to as “BV”) is the most common type of vaginitis, accounting for up to 50% of cases. After that, yeast infections make up around 20% to 25% of vaginitis cases, and 15% to 20% are caused by trichomoniasis, a common (and often easily treated) sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Aside from physical discomfort, a 2023 review of research published in the peer-reviewed journal, BMC Women’s Health, found that there are moderate to severe emotional impacts associated with vaginitis, including embarrassment, shame and frustration—all despite the fact that, according to research, most people with vaginas experience vaginitis at some point in their lives.

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How vaginitis occurs

The cause of vaginitis depends on the type. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that researchers typically don’t know exactly what causes bacterial vaginosis, but they do know it’s an imbalance between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in the vagina. This could stem from factors such as douching, not using condoms, or having new or multiple sex partners. In other cases, it can be caused by other influences such as a dietary issue or lowered immunity.

Dr. Eilber adds further: “Yeast [infection] vaginitis often occurs after a woman takes antibiotics for a bladder infection or UTI (urinary tract infection).” Trichomoniasis (sometimes called “trich” for short) is an infection caused by a parasite that is transmissible through sexual intercourse.

Some people may experience what’s called “chemical vaginosis” as well. This non-infectious type of vaginal inflammation can occur from using vaginal lubricants or moisturizers that irritate the skin.

In addition, a lack of estrogen—most often due to menopause—can cause vaginal inflammation, referred to as genitourinary syndrome of menopause (previously called atrophic vaginitis).

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What vaginitis feels like

Vaginitis doesn’t always cause symptoms. Sometimes, vaginitis can cause a woman to “merely feel more ‘aware’ of her vagina,” Dr. Eilber says.

Regardless of the type of vaginitis, symptoms can range from this “awareness” to itching and irritation, pain (like during sex or urination), and even bleeding, she adds. Some women also experience a change in color, odor, consistency, or amount of vaginal discharge.

Still, the CDC says that the majority of women with bacterial vaginosis don’t have symptoms, and 70% of trichomoniasis cases are asymptomatic.

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Vaginitis treatment

“Depending on severity, certain types of vaginitis can resolve on its own,” Dr. Eilber says. But if you’re dealing with uncomfortable symptoms, treatments—such as antibiotics for bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis and antifungal medications for a yeast infection—should provide relief within a few days.

If you have genitourinary syndrome of menopause (vaginitis due to low estrogen), it can take up to eight weeks to see improvement with vaginal estrogen treatment, Dr. Eilber says.

Untreated vaginitis doesn’t usually pose a severe health risk. “Generally, vaginal infections stay confined to the vagina (and genitlurinary syndrome of menopause is a local condition as well), so there is no overall health risk,” Dr. Eilber says. “But a woman’s quality of life and sexual health may be impacted due to her symptoms.”

If vaginitis doesn’t go away on its own and you don’t seek treatment, there are some known health risks. Bacterial vaginosis can increase your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, developing pelvic inflammatory disease, or having complications during pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The Cleveland Clinic adds that it’s also possible for a severe (untreated) yeast infection to spread to other parts of your body, like your blood, heart, or brain. Untreated trichomoniasis rarely causes long-term problems, but it also raises your risk of contracting other STIs—and, importantly, it can be spread to others through sex.

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Sources

People:

Karyn Eilber, MD, Professor of Urology and Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and co-author of A Woman's Guide to Her Pelvic Floor: What the F*@# Is Going On Down There?

Journals:

BMC Women's Health: "Scoping review of the association between bacterial vaginosis and emotional, sexual and social health"

American Family Physician: "Vaginitis: Diagnosis and Treatment"

Websites:

Boston Children's Hospital: "Vaginitis"

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)"

CDC: "Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021: Bacterial Vaginosis"

CDC: "Trichomoniasis"

The Cleveland Clinic: "Bacterial Vaginosis"

The Cleveland Clinic: "Candidiasis"

Leslie Finlay, MPA
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.