Vaginal concerns can be a common occurrence. Sometimes the cause is obvious such as changes in menstrual cycle, sexual activity or a new product you may be using. Other times, the cause is not as clear.
Since many have had a yeast infection before it may be easy to assume your recurrent symptoms have the same cause, however that is not always the case.
“A vaginal yeast infection is a common fungal infection that causes burning, itching, a thick, cottage cheese like discharge and discomfort in the vulvar and vaginal areas,” said Jennifer Nelson, DO, an internal medicine-pediatric specialist at Banner – University Medicine Internal Medicine Clinic in Phoenix, AZ. “Although it’s common in women, many other vaginal conditions can mimic a yeast infection but require different treatment. This is why it’s always important to discuss symptoms with your doctor to ensure that you are receiving the correct treatment.”
As Dr. Nelson mentioned, there are a few common conditions that can be mistaken for yeast infections. She walked us through four other important vaginal health issues to consider when these symptoms arise.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs)
“Sexually transmitted infections can often mimic yeast infections in that they may cause vaginitis, an irritation of your vagina or vulva,” Dr. Nelson said. “Common symptoms can include vaginal discharge, itching, burning, pain with sexual activity, bleeding and vaginal odor.”
The most common STIs that cause these symptoms are trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and mycoplasma:
- Trichomoniasis may sound unfamiliar, which may be due to the fact that most people don’t show any symptoms. This STI is caused by an organism called Trichomonas vaginalis. If you are one of the few who do experience symptoms, they may include vaginal itching, burning, discharge, pain with sexual activity or lower abdominal pain.
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia can also be either symptomatic or asymptomatic. If symptoms are present this can include vaginal discharge, burning, or lower abdominal pain.
- Another unfamiliar but common STI is mycoplasma genitalium (MG). You can also have MG without knowing it or with symptoms, however typical symptoms include vaginal discharge, bleeding or pain with sex and lower abdominal pain.
Depending on sexual practices, symptoms mentioned above can also be seen in the rectal or oral areas.
Treating STIs: These can all be treated with short courses of very commonly used antibiotics. Since STIs can be asymptomatic, it’s important to follow up with your health care provider regularly and undergo routine screenings in addition to when you have symptoms.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginal discharge between the ages of 15 and 44. “BV occurs when there is a shift in (or an overgrowth of) the bacteria which contributes to vaginal health. In turn, this overgrowth causes a bacterial imbalance that can result in symptoms,” Dr. Nelson said.
Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include thin, off-white vaginal discharge that can sometimes be described as having a fishy odor.
While bacterial vaginosis isn’t considered a sexually transmitted infection, being sexually active or having multiple sexual partners can put you at higher risk for it, as well as smoking and douching.
Treatment: Bacterial vaginosis is typically treated with a short course of an antibiotic called metronidazole.
An allergic reaction or sensitivity
Your vaginal area is sensitive, which means it may be sensitive to certain products you use.
“As with other parts of the body, the vulvar and vaginal areas can develop a contact dermatitis reaction to detergents, lotions, soaps and creams that you use ” Dr. Nelson said. “In addition, depending on what products you use, they can also alter the pH of the vagina which can lead to increased risk of infections like bacterial vaginosis.”
This kind of vaginal irritation is known as noninfectious vaginitis. It can cause itching and burning and vaginal discharge.
Treatment: Treating an allergic reaction or sensitivity will depend on what’s causing the symptoms and then eliminating them to see if symptoms resolve. Sometimes short courses of steroid creams can help with the itching.
Other skin conditions
Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis as well as lichen sclerosus, an inflammatory condition that is more common in postmenopausal people, can mimic symptoms of a yeast infection. The symptoms of lichen sclerosus are primarily severe itching.
Treatment: Treatment will depend on the skin condition, but lichen sclerosus is usually treated with corticosteroid ointment and requires monitoring as some people, in rare cases, are at risk for developing vulvar cancer.
Whenever you have any burning, itching, discharge or other vaginal concerns see your health care provider. “Physicians that can help with this include family medicine, internal medicine or OBGYN physicians,” Dr. Nelson said. “They can help determine the cause and how to treat it.”
Because many STIs have serious complications if left untreated, it’s important to not wait to see a provider for care and treatment. To find a health provider near you, visit bannerhealth.com.