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4 common causes of vaginal itching and how to get relief

HelloFlo is a women’s health company committed to normalizing the conversations we have about women’s bodies so that we can all live healthier lives.

Vaginal itching doesn't have to be as awful as it is

There's a reason "sand in the vagina" is a way of saying someone is in a bad mood. When you are itchy "down there," there is no end to the misery and discomfort.

Vaginal itching is enough to drive anyone insane. It's miserable, but you can't scratch, especially not in public (and also not if you want to keep yourself healthy). But what is that itch? Here are four common causes of vaginal itching and some quick ways to get relief.

Vaginal yeast infections

Vaginal yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of candida, a bacterial fungus that also commonly affects the skin and mouth. According to Women’s Health, roughly 75 percent of women are affected by yeast infections (also called candidiasis) at least once, suffering from symptoms like burning around the vulva, severe itching of and around the vagina and an abnormally thick, cheesy, white discharge. Women who have yeast infections may also experience pain during sexual intercourse, redness around the vulva and painful urination.

Typically your vagina is able to regulate its own bacteria and pH levels. If things get off-kilter, your vagina may become the breeding ground for too much yeast. The Mayo Clinic explains that “broad-spectrum antibiotics, which kill a range of bacteria, also kill healthy bacteria in your vagina,” which is why doctors often recommend women taking antibiotics begin taking a probiotic or eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kefir. Though yeast can grow at any time, wearing a wet bathing suit or sweaty leotard for too long, wearing dirty underwear, sleeping in underwear and having sex with someone with a yeast infection are all potential causes.

If you think you might have a yeast infection, you should make an appointment to see a doctor or nurse, who will perform a painless culture and send in the sample for testing. If you do have an infection, you’ll likely be prescribed a one- or two-dose pill to knock it out, and your symptoms should clear up within a day or so.

To prevent future yeast infections, it’s important to keep your vagina clean and dry, wear cotton underwear, sleep underwear free and take supplements or probiotics to promote healthy self-cleaning.

Bacterial vaginosis

Another common cause for itchiness is bacterial vaginosis, a condition similar to candidiasis. Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that bacterial vaginosis is more likely to affect women who are sexually active, though it isn’t technically sexually transmitted. The direct causes of BV are unknown, but the bacteria cannot be passed through surfaces like toilets or through hot tubs or swimming pools. According to Dr. Beverly Whipple in an article for Everyday Health, women who douche often disrupt the vagina’s self-cleaning processes and “flush out the normal bacteria” necessary to prevent infections. Typically bacterial vaginosis — and the uncomfortable symptoms that accompany it — subside on their own within a couple of days. In cases where the infection is more severe, recovery may take longer and require treatment.

To diagnose BV, a doctor will perform a standard vaginal exam followed by either a wet mount, whiff test or pH exam. None of the tests is invasive or painful — a wet mount test requires a discharge swab that is mixed with saline and then examined, and a whiff test, according to WebMD, is performed by combining “potassium hydroxide [and a] sample of vaginal discharge to find out whether a strong fishy odor is produced.” If the infection is severe enough, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to speed the healing process along.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis, also known as trich, is an easily treated sexually transmitted infection that affects over 3.5 million Americans. Planned Parenthood explains trich as an often symptomless infection “caused by protozoan — a microscopic, one-cell animal.” Women with trich often notice a foamy-looking discharge, bad vaginal odor and swelling in addition to itchiness. Spread most commonly through sexual contact, trich is easy to diagnose and to treat.

As with many other vaginal infections, if you think you might have trich, you should see a doctor, who will perform a vaginal exam and a swab to test for infection. Trich can be prevented by using condoms and exercising caution with sexual partners, and is most frequently treated with antivirals.

Cervicitis

Cervicitis, or cervical inflammation, can often cause itchiness in addition to yellow or bloody discharge and pelvic pain. According to Merck Manual, cervicitis is often caused by other infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes, though it can also be the result of cervical injuries that sometimes occur after tampon use or medical procedures. Cervical inflammation often causes discharge that looks and feels like pus, and is frequently characterized by vaginal bleeding.

If a doctor thinks you might be suffering from cervicitis, they’ll perform a full pelvic exam and then perform a cervical swab to test. If there’s reason to think you might have another cervical condition, your doctor may follow up by performing a Pap smear or a colposcopy to look more closely at the cervix and surrounding areas. Antibiotics and antiviral medications are typically the quickest ways to heal from cervicitis, as they’re likely to treat the STI that may be the underlying cause. If left untreated, cervicitis can increase a woman’s likelihood of developing pelvic inflammatory disease or other, more serious pelvic problems, so seeking medical attention quickly is advised.

Vaginal itching can be caused by a wide variety of infections — both sexually transmitted and otherwise — and ultimately you should seek medical attention if you’re bothered for more than a few days. Whether or not you’re sexually active, you may have an infection that requires treatment before it can clear up and you can be comfortable again.

Written by Emma Miller

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