Allow us to share some science on different types of common vaginal infections - and how to tell them apart. Many women confuse the symptoms of different vaginal infections and issues. Not surprisingly, we aren't taught all too much about our vaginas or vulvas in health class. There is a lot to learn, but for now let’s talk about the normal state of the vagina and the two most common vaginal infections: yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
A Healthy Vagina
If all is going well you shouldn’t really notice your vagina or vulva very much. This is in part thanks to your very own team of good bacteria that are working with you to maintain your vaginal health and protect you from bad bacteria, overgrowth of yeast and sexually-transmitted infections. This team is known as your vaginal microbiome. One of the ways these healthy bacteria protect you is by maintaining the acidic environment of your vagina. The acidity of the vagina makes it an inhospitable place for organisms that may harm you. In exchange for all the work these bacteria do, your vaginal cells secrete a substance called glycogen.
Glycogen provides lubrication to your vagina and provides nutrients to your team of good vaginal bacteria. This glycogen, along with the sloughing off of the cells lining your vagina constitutes the majority of your discharge. Normal vaginal discharge is white or clear, can be thick or thin, and has minimal odor. A typical woman will have between 1 to 4 mL, about a teaspoon worth, of vaginal discharge in 24 hours 1 . A healthy vagina is a delicately balanced ecosystem. Any disruptions to this system can lead to abnormal vaginal discharge, pain, itching and discomfort.
Yeast, or more specifically Candida albicans, is the most common cause of vaginal infections. The vaginal discharge that accompanies a yeast infection is typically thick, white and clumpy. There is usually not a change in odor. Thick white discharge alone should not necessarily concern you, as for some women this is entirely normal. The true hallmark of a yeast infection is vulvar and vaginal itching and irritation.
Bacterial vaginosis, commonly referred to as BV, is caused by a shift in your vaginal flora away from the healthy bacteria. The symptoms of this overgrowth of bad bacteria are an increased amount of discharge and a change in the odor. Many women describe the smell as “fishy.” This smell is often worse during menses and after intercourse. BV does not typically cause itching or irritation.
Hope this helps clear up your understanding of common vaginal infections!
Source: 1 Sobel, Jack D. “Approach to Women with Symptoms of Vaginitis.” Uptodate, 13 Apr. 2018