Vaginal health is an important aspect in maintaining a woman’s wellbeing – find out about two common conditions that can affect the vagina and how they can be easily treated.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
From helping us to have and enjoy sex, have periods, get pregnant and give birth, it goes without saying that vaginal health plays an integral role in a woman’s overall health.
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of vaginal problems and what you can to do protect your intimate health. We look at two of the most common and treatable conditions that can affect your vagina; bacterial vaginosis (BV) and thrush.
What is BV?
BV is an infection that can happen when the balance of bacteria inside the vagina is changed. It is not a sexually-transmitted infection and nearly half of women with BV have no symptoms. In fact, it’s the most common cause of vaginal infections in women of childbearing age. The condition doesn’t normally cause vaginal itching or soreness, but it can cause vaginal discharge.
If you have BV, your discharge might become white or grey, become thin and watery and/or develop a strong fishy smell, becoming more prominent after sexual intercourse or during your period.
Causes of BV
Your vagina is normally acidic, which helps prevent bad bacteria from growing and maintains the level of good bacteria called lactobacillus. If the pH balance becomes less acidic however, this can affect the health of your vagina. Different factors can affect the pH balance of your vagina, including getting your period, taking antibiotics, over-washing, using an IUD (intrauterine device) and semen if you haves ex without a condom. The imbalance of your pH can be accompanied by overgrowth of anaerobic organisms that replace normal lactobacilli, causing BV.
When should you see a doctor?
If you are suffering from BV for the first time or if you are pregnant, make an appointment to see your doctor. BV may cause complications, especially in the course of pregnancy and childbirth, but with the help of your doctor you’ll be able to manage it properly.
Pregnancy and BV
Pregnancy can cause an increase of bad bacteria in your intimate area, and can lead a BV infection. If you’re pregnant and you have BV, visit your doctor to discuss how to manage it. Up to half of the cases of BV in pregnant women get better on their own. However, if you have BV symptoms which go untreated, it may increase your chance of developing the following complications:
- going into labour too soon
- having a baby with a low-birth weight
- developing an infection of the uterus (womb) after birth
Vaginal douching is not recommended as it can interfere with the vagina’s pH levels, reducing its acidity and raising the risk of developing bacterial infections. Avoid using cleansers or harsh soaps inside the vagina, as these can also affect a healthy pH balance.
Treatment of BV
BV can normally be treated by antibiotic or with a gel that you insert into your vagina. Alternatively, it can be treated with an antibiotic if necessary. If you think you have BV, speak to your GP or pharmacist before using any treatment.
Prevention of BV
Because the causes of BV are not fully understood, it’s not possible to totally prevent it. However, you can reduce your risk of developing the condition if you:
- avoid using deodorants or perfumed products in and around your vaginal area
- avoid over-washing
- avoid using strong detergent to wash your underwear
- change your tampons or pads frequently
- ensure you wipe from front to back after going to the toilet
- dry your vaginal area after washing, swimming and working
- change your underwear after swimming and working out
Most women experience occasional bouts of vaginal thrush. It’s a fairly harmless condition, but it can be uncomfortable and keep coming back (recurrent thrush).
Symptoms of thrush
- itching and soreness around the entrance to the vagina
- pain during sex
- a stinging sensation when you urinate
- vaginal discharge, although this isn’t always present; the discharge is usually odourless; it can be thin and watery, or thick and white, like cottage cheese
According to the HSE, Doctors sometimes refer to ‘uncomplicated’ or ‘complicated’ thrush depending on your symptoms and how often you get the infection. Uncomplicated thrush refers to mild thrush where it’s a first bout or you haven’t had it very often before. Complicated thrush refers to severe thrush that tends to keep coming back (you’ve had four or more episodes in a year).
Severe thrush symptoms
- redness of the vagina and vulva
- cracked skin around the entrance to the vagina
- swelling of the vagina and vulva
- sores in the surrounding area (this is rare, but may indicate the presence of another fungal condition, or the herpes simplex virus – the virus that causes genital herpes)
Causes of thrush
Vaginal thrush is caused by the overgrowth of a yeast-like fungus that lives naturally in the vagina. Most cases of thrush – between 80% and 90% – are due to a type of fungus called Candida albicans.
The rest are due to other types of Candida fungi. Up to half of women have Candida living naturally in their vagina without it causing any symptoms.
It’s thought that there has to be a change in the natural balance of the vagina, which leads to an explosion in the growth of Candida that causes the symptoms of thrush.
This change can be a chemical change, such as when you take antibiotics. Or it can be a hormonal change, for instance, during pregnancy.
When to visit your GP
According to the HSE, you should see your GP if:
- this is the first time you’ve had thrush
- you’re under 16 or over 60
- you’re pregnant or may be pregnant
- you’re breastfeeding
- you have abnormal menstrual bleeding or blood-stained discharge
- you have lower abdominal pain
- your symptoms are different from previous bouts of thrush, for example, if the discharge is a different colour or has a bad smell
- you have vulval or vaginal sores
- you’ve had two cases of thrush within the last six months
- you or your partner have previously had a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- you’ve reacted badly to an anti fungal treatment in the past, or it didn’t work
- your symptoms don’t improve after seven to 14 days
Thrush and pregnancy
Thrush will not stop you from getting pregnant. However, some of the symptoms may make having sex uncomfortable.
Pregnant women are up to three times more likely to have yeasts colonising in the vagina. About a third of pregnant women have yeasts detected and an estimated 60-90% of these women will have symptoms. It is important to visit your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding before using any treatments.
Treatment of thrush
If your symptoms of vaginal thrush are mild, your GP or pharmacy may recommend a short course of anti-thrush medicine, which is usually taken for one to three days. you can easily and effectively treat with over the counter (OTC) products. It is important to treat thrush internally and externally. Combination treatment is the complete treatment for thrush. If your symptoms are more severe, you’ll need to take the treatment for longer.
If you’re unsure if you have bacterial vaginosis or thrush, you can take control and diagnose yourself with a Self-Test for vaginal infections. The test helps you to determine which vaginal infection you are suffering from and treat it quickly and effectively. You only need to use a simple swab and a colour change will indicate reliably whether you are suffering from thrush or bacterial vaginosis.
What is the difference between thrush and BV?
Many women mistake BV for thrush, but the symptoms and causes are different. BV is caused by a bacterial infection whereas thrush is caused by a yeast infection.
Vaginal discharge is secreted in small amounts to help keep your vagina clean in the same way that saliva helps to cleanse your mouth.
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