Vaginal infections result in more trips to see a doctor for women than most other conditions, leading to roughly 10 million office visits annually. Most women will have an infection in her genital region at least once in her lifetime, but a recent survey revealed that many women do not fully understanding these infections and they often go untreated.
Vaginitis, or the irritation of the vagina, can result from a host of different infections. The most common types include bacterial vaginosis, candidiasis (yeast) and trichomoniasis.
Women who suffer from itching, redness and swelling may not realize what is going on. “Many women will use creams that mask odors or treat itching. If the creams don’t work, finally the symptoms are persistent and they will come in” to see a doctor, says Mary Inagami, M.D., chief of gynecology at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, which serves more than 300,000 veterans in Connecticut and southern New England.
Roughly two out of three women who think they have a simple yeast infection actually have something more serious that needs treatment, according to reports from the National Vaginitis Association in St. Paul, Minn. There can be serious health consequences from under treating or mistreating vaginal infections.
Yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but other vaginal infections cannot. Bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis require a treatment prescribed by a doctor. Vaginal irritation, itching, discharge, or odor should never be treated with douching, which can flush an infection further into the reproductive tract. If you have never had an infection before and you think it is just a yeast infection, it is best to first visit a doctor to rule out other possibilities before beginning any treatment.
“If bacterial vaginosis goes untreated, you can have complications from pregnancy or problems after surgery,” Inagami said. “An untreated infection can also obscure the Pap smear results.” There is also evidence linking bacterial vagninosis to increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Getting a proper diagnosis is of the utmost importance in treating vaginitis. “A simple test called a wet-mount that the doctor can do during a speculum and pelvic exam can diagnose many of these infections,” Inagami explained.
Over-the-counter testing kits are now available for women of child bearing age to help determine if symptoms such as vaginal itching or abnormal or excessive discharges are likely the result of an infection that requires treatment from a doctor.
Some health care advocates warn that home diagnoses and self treatments are not always the best course of action.
“Sales of products to treat yeast infections have risen sharply since those products became available over-the-counter without a prescription,” said Sherry Marts, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs for the Society for Women’s Health Research, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy organization. “Although these treatments are convenient, about half of women mistakenly diagnose themselves with a yeast infection when they don’t have one. That can lead to the unnecessary use of expensive and ineffective treatments. Worse yet, these women may be missing other, more dangerous infections.”
Studies have shown that up to 70 percent of women attempt to self diagnose and treat vaginal infections, and 80 percent of women have trouble distinguishing between yeast infections and other more serious infections.
“Women often try to deal with these problems on their own,” Marts said, “because they are not comfortable discussing vaginal health, even with their doctor, and because they view vaginal infections as a minor problem, when in fact they can cause serious health problems if not properly treated. Any woman experiencing abnormal vaginal itching, odor or discharges should see a health care provider.”
Revision date: July 3, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD