Vaginal Infections Patient Information Fact Sheet

What are vaginal infections?
All women have a natural vaginal discharge. Vaginal secretions change depending on the time of the month in women of reproductive age. The normal secretion is usually a milky liquid, which dries as a white or cream mark; this changes to a clear, stretchy mucus around the time of ovulation. Vaginal secretions should not smell unpleasant or cause pain or itching. An infection can cause the secretions to change. There may be more discharge than normal, a change in color, a strong or unpleasant smell or itching and discomfort.

What causes vaginal infections?
Irritation and discharge may be caused by leaving a tampon in too long, a reaction to perfumed soaps, bubble baths or laundry soap or wearing nylon underwear or tights. A cervical erosion (a small ulcer on the neck of the womb) can cause an increase in secretions which should be checked by a doctor. The contraceptive pill may also cause changes to cervical fluids. Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause symptoms and should be treated by a gynecologist. The most common vaginal infections are yeast infection (See “Yeast Infections”), bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis (TV). Gonorrhea and chlamydia are two serious sexually transmitted diseases that can have vaginal symptoms, so these are listed below as well.

What are the symptoms of vaginal infections?
Yeast infection (also known as thrush or candidiasis) is an infection caused by a fungus (yeast) called Candida albicans. This organism is present naturally in the intestines and vagina but in certain circumstances overgrowth may occur, causing an infection. The balance of micro-organisms in the vagina may be upset by antibiotics, pregnancy, the use of scented soaps or bubble baths or by wearing nylon underwear or tights. A yeast infection causes a thick white discharge often described as resembling cottage cheese. The discharge should not smell or change color; if it does it may indicate that a different type of infection is present. If it is your first yeast infection, your doctor may culture a sample to confirm the diagnosis. If the infection recurs, the symptoms are usually recognized and no further testing should be necessary.

Bacterial vaginosis is also known as gardnerella and causes a grey, watery discharge with a strong “fishy” smell. It is caused by an increase in the bacteria that normally live in the vagina. A culture usually needs to be taken from the vagina to confirm the diagnosis.

Trichomoniasis (TV) is caused by a tiny parasite and is sexually transmitted. The symptoms start between four days and three weeks after contact with an infected person. It causes a thin, yellow or green discharge, which may be frothy and have an unpleasant “fishy” smell. Again, a vaginal swab is usually required to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes there are no symptoms.