Before you even think of searching for at-home remedies for vaginitis on the internet, you need a proper diagnosis of what's actually happening.
More than three million people per year experience the pain and anxiety of vaginitis, a group of conditions marked by inflammation of the vagina. In fact, 75% of women will experience at least one of the conditions during their lifetime.
However, many will try to deal with symptoms at home rather than with the support of their healthcare provider. At home, they will not receive a proper diagnosis or medical treatment and may not even know the actual source of their condition.
We spoke with nurse practitioner Kannika Story and Dr. Paul Nyirjesy, specialists in vulvovaginal and women’s health, about bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections—the two most common types of vaginitis—and about the importance of speaking to a trusted provider.
An Umbrella Term
“Vaginitis is a broad umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause symptoms like burning, irritation, pain with intercourse or abnormal discharge of the vagina,” said Dr. Nyirjesy.
“Most vaginitis symptoms are caused by infections. The most common are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis,” said Story. Both types can come in the form of single infections, episodic reactions or recurrent issues.
Most patients won’t be able to tell the difference between the two conditions at home. Instead, a trained clinician can provide a solid diagnosis and treatment plan.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginal infections and accounts for roughly half of all cases. It is often mistaken for a yeast infection.
“BV is caused by a shift in the flora of the vagina,” said Story. “Basically, so-called ‘bad bacteria’ overtake healthy bacteria.” Symptoms include unusual vaginal discharge and odor. There is no physical discomfort associated with BV.
When it comes to diagnosis, “an increase in vaginal pH is a common sign of BV,” said Dr. Nyirjesy. “However, that is an indicator, not a cause. This is why we don’t recommend over-the-counter remedies meant to control the pH level.”
Having BV puts women at a greater risk for a broad range of other infections, including urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
Single cases and episodic BV can be treated with oral medications or topical creams. It is not considered transferable through sexual contact.
In order to minimize the risk of developing BV, it’s important to practice good vaginal hygiene and avoid douching, as it harms good bacteria. Cigarette smoking can also increase your risk. Finally, the use of condoms during sex is believed to minimize flare-ups.
“Yeast infections are when yeast is present in the vagina or vulva and causing symptoms, ” said Story. “Symptoms commonly include itching, burning, swelling and irritation, but not every patient has symptoms,” she added.
For patients with a single episode or sporadic cases, a yeast infection may go away on its own or can be managed with over-the-counter antifungals. Most will notice an improvement in a few days. For more severe symptoms, your provider may recommend a topical cream or oral medication.
For women with a resistant strain or recurrent yeast infections—over three episodes per year—medical attention is necessary.
“Over-the-counter remedies for yeast infections are available, but they are best used for sporadic cases where the diagnosis is clear,” said Story. Other available treatments such as boric acid may be effective in certain situations, but should only be taken in the correct manner.
There are no scientifically proven ways to prevent yeast infections, but patients should try to get out of wet clothes as quickly as possible, as yeast prefer areas that are damp.
Both of these conditions can be recurrent in some patients, meaning they will appear at least three times per year.
“Recurrent yeast infections have a big impact,” said Dr. Nyirjesy. “Women might even be too uncomfortable to go to work.”
Recurrent infections might require the use of steroids to treat inflammation and long-term antifungal therapy. These can improve quality of life but require close monitoring.
“If you’re having repeated episodes and treatment seems to be less effective, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” he added. “You want to be sure you have the correct diagnosis. There are also many treatment options to choose from, so there are probably better approaches to try.”