Female Genital Problems

Topic Overview

Most women experience minor vaginal problems from time to time. These problems can be related to menstrual cycles, sex, infection, birth control methods, aging, medicines, or changes after pregnancy.

A change in your normal vaginal discharge may be the first sign of a vaginal problem. Changes in urination, such as having to urinate more frequently or a burning feeling when you urinate, also may be a symptom of a vaginal problem.

Conditions that may cause a change in your normal vaginal discharge include:

Vaginal infections

The presence or excess growth of yeast cells, bacteria, or viruses can cause a vaginal infection. A vaginal infection may occur when there is a change in the normal balance of organisms in your vagina.

The three most common types of vaginal infections are:

  • Candida vulvovaginitis (yeast infections).
  • Bacterial infections (bacterial vaginosis).
  • Parasitic infections (trichomoniasis).

Common symptoms of vaginal infection include:

  • Increase or change in the vaginal discharge, including gray, green, or yellow discharge.
  • Vaginal redness, swelling, itching, or pain.
  • Vaginal odor.
  • Burning with urination .
  • Pain or bleeding with sex.

If you are pregnant and have vaginal symptoms, talk with your doctor about your symptoms before considering any home treatment measures. Some home treatment measures may not be appropriate, depending on the cause of your vaginal infection. Conditions such as bacterial vaginosis can affect your pregnancy, so it is important to talk with your doctor and be treated appropriately.

Vaginal infections may increase the risk for pelvic infections, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Vaginal or vulvar problems

Other vaginal or vulvar problems may occur from the use of birth control methods, the use of medicines, or aging, or as a result of changes after pregnancy. These problems include:

  • Vaginal prolapse, which may cause urination and bowel changes.
  • Retained tampon, birth control device, or foreign object. See how to remove an object from the vagina.
  • Vulvar or vaginal injury, such as landing on a metal bar such as on a bike or playground equipment or from an object in the vagina.
  • Vulvar pain (vulvodynia).
  • Noninfectious vaginitis. Examples of this include:

A young girl with unusual vaginal symptoms should be evaluated by her doctor to determine the cause. Vaginitis in a young girl may be caused by:

  • A ball of toilet paper in her vagina.
  • Pinworms that have spread from the anus to the vagina.
  • The spread of bacteria from an upper respiratory infection of the ears (otitis media) or throat (tonsillitis) to the vagina by her hands.

A young girl with vaginal symptoms must also be evaluated for possible sexual abuse.

Rashes, sores, blisters, or lumps in the vaginal or vulvar area

Many conditions can cause a rash, sore, blister, or lump in your vaginal area (vulva). One of the most common causes of a rash is genital skin irritation that may occur when soap is not rinsed off the skin or when tight-fitting or wet clothes rub against the skin. A sore, blister, or lump in your vaginal area may require a visit to your doctor.

Treatment of a vaginal problem depends on the cause of the problem, the severity of your symptoms, and your overall health condition.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Vaginal yeast infection: Should I treat it myself?

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

A vaginal infection may clear up without treatment in 2 or 3 days.

  • If you could be pregnant, do a home pregnancy test. Any pregnant woman with abnormal vaginal symptoms should talk with her doctor about her symptoms before considering using any home treatment measures or nonprescription medicines. For more information, see the topic Pregnancy-Related Problems.
  • Avoid sex so that irritated vaginal tissues can heal.
  • Do not scratch the vaginal area. Relieve itching with a cold water compress or cool baths. Warm baths may also relieve pain and itching.
  • Make sure that the cause of your symptoms is not a forgotten tampon or other foreign object. For more information, see how to remove an object in the vagina.
  • Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing. Stay away from nylon and synthetics, because they hold heat and moisture close to the skin, which makes it easier for an infection to start. You may want to remove pajama bottoms or underwear when you sleep.
  • Do not douche unless your doctor tells you to.
  • If you have gone through menopause, try using a vaginal lubricant, such as Astroglide, to reduce irritation caused by having sex.

Vaginal yeast infections

If you have symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection and have been diagnosed and treated by your doctor for this condition in the past, you may want to try using a nonprescription medicine, such as tioconazole (for example, Vagistat), clotrimazole (for example, Gyne-Lotrimin), or miconazole (for example, Monistat) to treat your symptoms.

If your symptoms do not improve with home treatment, contact your doctor. Vaginal symptoms that may be related to another type of vaginal infection or a cervical infection need to be evaluated.

Women who take the blood-thinning medicine warfarin (Coumadin) and use a nonprescription vaginal yeast-fighting medicine, such as Monistat, may have increased bruising and abnormal bleeding. Consult with your doctor before using a yeast-fighting medicine if you take warfarin.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Vaginal yeast infection: Should I treat it myself?

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Symptoms of a vaginal infection develop.
  • Unexpected vaginal bleeding develops
  • A fever develops.
  • You have moderate to severe pain.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may help you prevent a vaginal infection.

  • If you think your frequent vaginal infections may be related to using a diaphragm, spermicidal foam or jelly, or condoms, discuss other birth control options with your doctor.
  • Wipe from front to back after using the toilet, to avoid spreading bacteria from the anus to the vagina.
  • Wash the vaginal area once a day with plain water or a mild, nonperfumed soap. Do not use bubble bath. Rinse well and dry thoroughly.
  • Change tampons at least 3 times a day during your period, or alternate tampons with pads. Remember to remove the last tampon used during your period.
  • Wear cotton underwear and avoid clothes that fit tightly, such as tight-fitting jeans. Cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothing help prevent the vaginal area from staying warm and moist, which can promote the growth of yeast cells. Tight-fitting clothes may cause skin irritation leading to a rash.
  • Remove wet bathing suits and exercise clothing promptly.
  • Avoid douching.
  • Avoid the use of feminine deodorant sprays and other perfumed products. They may cause genital skin irritation or an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis).
  • Having multiple sex partners and not using condoms can increase your risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which may increase your risk of a vaginal infection.
  • Urinate after sex, and rinse your vaginal area with cool water.
  • Limit intense exercise, such as bike riding or horseback riding, that can irritate the vulva.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in good control.

Take antibiotics when needed, but avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics. Taking antibiotics exposes you to the risks of allergic reactions and antibiotic side effects (such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and yeast infections). Also, antibiotics may kill good bacteria.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
  • What does your vaginal discharge look and smell like?
  • What was the date of your last menstrual period? If you have been through menopause, how long ago was your last menstrual period?
  • Are you currently using any type of birth control method?
  • What medicines (especially antibiotics) are you taking or have you taken recently, if any?
  • Do you have any symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have a new sex partner? Do you have more than one sex partner? Does your partner have any symptoms? Have you had sex without using a condom? Do you think you have recently been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease (STD)?
  • Have you been diagnosed and treated for a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the past? If so what was your diagnosis, and what treatment was done?
  • Do you have symptoms of a urinary tract infection, such as pain or burning on urination and a frequent urge to urinate?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Deborah A. Penava, BA, MD, FRCSC, MPH - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Updated November 2, 2009

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