How to Recognize and Avoid Vaginal Infections

 Vaginal infections are very common and most women will experience at least one during their lifetime. You should not be embarrassed. While they are uncomfortable and irritating, they can be cured. However, they do sometimes come back, so some women may experience more than one infection or what seems like a continuous infection. It is important that you pay attention to your vagina and be aware of any unusual symptoms.

Recognizing SymptomsDownload Article

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    Know what is normal. It is completely normal to have some discharge. Your discharge should be clear, a little cloudy, or sometimes white. Your vagina is self-cleaning, and discharge is part of the cleaning process. Your discharge should not have a strong smell or be itchy, although some odour is common, especially during your period.[1]
    • The amount and consistency of discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle. It can go from thin and watery to thick. Sometimes you may have a little and other times a lot.
    • Every woman's body is different. A normal amount of discharge for you may not be normal for someone else. You should pay attention to your discharge so that you can gauge what is normal for you.[2]
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    Know common causes of infections. The two most common vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. Both of these infections are caused by organisms that naturally occur in your vagina. Yeast infections are caused by having too much yeast in your vagina,[3] and bacterial vaginosis happens when the proper balance of bacteria in your vagina is thrown off.[4]
    • Other common vaginal infections are non-infectious vaginitis (caused by an allergic reaction or irritation from certain products) and sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia,[5] gonorrhea,[6] herpes simplex virus,[7] or trichomoniasis.[8]
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    Look for abnormal discharge. Abnormal vaginal discharge is one of the most common signs of a vaginal infection. If the color, consistency, or amount of discharge changes, you may have an infection.[9]
    • If you notice a fishy smell in your vagina, it is probably bacterial vaginosis.[10] If you have discharge that looks like cottage cheese, you may have a yeast infection.[11]
    • Abnormal discharge is also may be a sign that you have chlamydia or gonorrhea.[12][13]
    • Greenish, frothy discharge is common with trichomoniasis.
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    Notice any itching or burning. Itching and burning are never normal and indicate that you may have a vaginal infection. Having an increased urge to pee or having a burning sensation when you pee is another sign that you may have an infection.[14]
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    Pay attention to any pain or swelling. Experiencing pain in your lower abdomen and pelvic area, swelling, soreness, and redness around your genital area is a sign that you may have some type of vaginal infection.[15]
    • Pain during sex is also an indicator of a possible vaginal infection.[16]
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    Call your doctor. You should never try to diagnose and treat your vaginal infection on your own. If you notice anything unusual, you need to call your doctor. Many infections have the similar symptoms but require different treatments. Getting the proper diagnosis is very important.[17]
    • You should be prepared to tell your doctor the color, smell, and consistency of your discharge, the amount of time you have been experiencing symptoms, and any products (i.e. detergent, perfume, vaginal sprays, spermicides, or douches) that you have been using. Detailed information will help your doctor diagnose you.
    • Your doctor may do a gynecological exam after you talk about your symptoms. They also may take a sample of your discharge or urine to test for an infection.[18]
    • About 90% of vaginal infections can be cured within two weeks or less. Untreated vaginal infections can last for years and can lead to infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease.[19] [20]
    • There are over the counter treatments for yeast infections. You should visit your doctor before you try a treatment. For example, if you take Monistat to treat a yeast infection when you really have bacterial vaginosis, your symptoms will not get any better.

Preventing Vaginal InfectionsDownload Article

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    Get regular checkups. Women should have a pelvic exam as part of their yearly physical. Your doctor will be able to check for any signs of illness during your visit. This is the time to ask any questions or discuss any concerns or symptoms you may be having.[21]
    • You should not douche, use a tampon, have sex, or use any medicine or cream in your vagina two days before your visit.
    • The exam should not take more than 10 minutes.[22]
    • If you are sexually active, you should ask your doctor to screen you for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Many people do not experience symptoms when they have some STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV. Yearly screening will help with identifying and treating these infections before they have any lasting effects.[23]
    • You should use condoms if you are sexually active. This can prevent your partner from passing a STI to you. You should still get tested regularly even if you use condoms.[24]
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    Wear proper clothing. You should wear underwear that keeps your genital area dry and does not hold moisture. Cotton is the preferred fabric. You should also avoid wearing tight fitting clothing because it can trap heat and moisture around your genital area. If you work out or go swimming, you should change out of your wet clothes as soon as possible.[25]
    • When you are on your period, you should change your tampons and pads regularly.
    • Make sure your non-cotton underwear, leggings, workout gear, and pantyhose have a cotton panel in the crotch area
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    Clean your vagina properly. Your vagina is a self-cleaning organ. You should not do anything that may upset the natural balance if your vagina because it can lead to an infection.[26]
    • Wash the area around your vagina with plain, unscented soaps and rinse with plenty of water.[27]
    • You should not douche, use feminine sprays, or scented tampons. These can upset the natural bacterial balance of your vagina and cause irritation. Remember your vagina is self-cleaning.[28]
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    Eat yogurt with active cultures. Foods live and active cultures can help keep the right pH balance in your vagina. Probiotics is another common term for these cultures. Good sources of probiotics are yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso. Make sure your yogurt label says "contains live and active cultures." Eating one cup of yogurt a day is adequate.[29]
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    Wipe properly. When you use the bathroom, make sure you wipe from front to back. Wiping from back to front will spread yeast and bacteria from your anus to your vagina or your urinary tract.[30] Spreading bacteria through improper wiping can cause bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection.

Expert Q&A

  • Question
    What can be done for watery discharge associated with itching?
    Carrie Noriega, MD
    Board Certified Obstetrician & Gynecologist
    Expert Answer
    A watery discharge with itching should be checked out by your doctor. This may be a sign of an infection.
  • Question
    I get white and green discharge (never at the same time) and I get a lot of it every day. How can I get this to stop/what should I do?
    Carrie Noriega, MD
    Board Certified Obstetrician & Gynecologist
    Expert Answer
    Since there is a greenish color to your discharge, you should get it checked out by your doctor.
Ask a Question



  • Sleep without underwear to give your vagina a chance to get some air.
  • Wash underwear with hot water every time to kill bacteria. You may also want to avoid fabric softeners when washing your underwear and use an unscented detergent as they can cause allergies or irritation, which can lead to infection.
  • Understand that some women have more discharge than others, it is a perfectly normal part of being female. If it is terribly irritating, change your underwear often, or wear a light pantyliner and change that frequently during the day to stay dry.
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