3 most common causes of vaginitis

3 most common causes of vaginitis

Vaginal discharge can be a symptom of vaginitis.

Vaginitis infections are annoying at best, and downright awful at their worst.  But before we get into that, lets briefly discuss normal vaginal discharge.  Vaginal discharge tends to be a topic that no one likes to talk about, but the truth is, most women have it every day and that can be totally normal.  The question is, when is discharge NOT normal.   How can you tell if your discharge shows that there is something wrong, like an infection?  In this post, we are going talk about the 3 most common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge  AND What to do about it.

Vaginitis is a general term referring to inflammation of the vagina

Vaginitis is a general term referring to inflammation of the vagina that causes an increased amount of discharge, itching, odor or pain.  The cause is usually a change in the normal balance of vaginal bacteria, or it can be from an infection.  Today, we are going to talk about the 3 main types of infections that cause vaginitis.   These three aren’t the only causes for infections,  but the 3  we are going to talk about are responsible for 90 % of vaginitis infections.  These 3 infections are bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis.

The symptoms for vaginitis can vary from woman to woman, but often include one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Change in the volume, color, or odor of vaginal discharge
  • itching
  • Burning
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • pain with intercourse
  • Spotting
  • Pain when you pee

So let’s dive in and talk about the 3 most common types of vaginitis.  They are:  Trichomonas, Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infection. 

Discharge from Trichomonas is often bubbly and frothy

Trichomonas can only be diagnosed by a medical provider

The organism responsible for trichomoniasis is a flagellated protozoan.  A protozoa is a single-celled microscopic animal.   Trichomonas is almost always sexually transmitted, but it can also be transferred by sharing towels, vaginal toys, underwear, or anything that can transfer infected secretions. It usually produces lots of malodorous, thin discharge.   Other symptoms could be burning, itching, pain with urination and pain with sex.   This can only be diagnosed by a medical provider.  Your provider will take a sample of your discharge and put it on a slide and look at it under a microscope.  Or, they might send your sample to the lab to be tested.   The treatment for trichomonas involves oral antibiotics.   If you have been diagnosed with trichomonas, your sexual partner should be tested and treated as well.


If I’m diagnosed with BV, does my sexual partner need to be tested?

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common of the three vaginitis infections, accounting for 40 to 50 percent of abnormal discharge in girls of reproductive age,  which is the time between puberty and menopause.   Bacterial vaginosis is an infection in the vagina that can cause bad-smelling vaginal discharge. Technically, BV is not a true bacterial infection but rather an imbalance of the bacteria that are normally found in the vagina. Most women, about 60 percent,  don’t have symptoms of BV at all.  Sometimes. the infection is found when you are getting your annual exam and pap smear.    If you do have symptoms, most women complain that they have a “fishy-smelling” vaginal discharge. 

Bacterial vaginosis causes a fishy smelling discharge

Sometimes people notice it more after sex. The discharge is watery and creamy or gray. Women may also notice burning inside the vagina.   I am commonly asked:  If I’m diagnosed with BV, does my sexual partner need to be tested.   My answer is:  It depends…  Women cannot get BV from having sex with a man, but a woman can pass it on to another woman during sex.   BV can only be diagnosed by a medical provider and antibiotics are needed to treat BV.

Yeast infection.   A vulvovaginal yeast infection is an infection that causes itching and irritation of the vulva, the outer lips of the vagina. This type of infection is often caused by a fungus called “candida.”


Symptoms of a yeast infection include:

  • Itching of the vulva
  • Pain when you urinate
  • Pain, redness, or irritation of the vulva and vagina
  • Pain during sex
Yeast infections cause thick white discharge

Some women with a yeast infection also develop an abnormal vaginal discharge. This discharge is usually white and clumpy (like cottage cheese). But it can also be thin and watery.

For women with yeast infection symptoms, there is an over-the-counter treatment you can use that might clear it up.  However, most women cannot tell whether they have a yeast infection, BV, trichomonas, or something else. Many symptoms of vaginitis are similar to each other and can be hard to tell what type on infection you have based on symptoms alone.   The best way to diagnose your symptoms is by seeing your medical provider and have a test to see which kind of infection you have.


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