Vaginal itching: Common causes, symptoms, and treatments

Vaginal itching is an uncomfortable, yet common occurrence. There are a number of causes, and most require medical treatment.

This article provides an overview of common causes of vaginal itching, along with links to more detailed articles.

Yeast infections

Most women will experience a vaginal yeast infection during their lifetime. Though these aren’t usually serious, yeast infection symptoms can be bothersome.

Normally, a balance of healthful bacteria and yeast live in the vagina. The bacteria keep yeast in check, preventing overgrowth. When the vagina’s bacteria do not properly control the yeast balance, yeast overgrowth can occur.

Symptoms of yeast overgrowth can include:

  • itching
  • burning
  • odorless white or clear discharge
  • irritation

Yeast infections usually occur when something upsets the vagina’s bacteria balance. Common causes include:

  • douching
  • hormone changes, such as during pregnancy, or from using hormonal birth control
  • use of antibiotics

Some health conditions may also make a woman more likely to get a yeast infection. A weakened immune system or uncontrolled diabetes may increase the risk.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

This common bacterial infection, also known as BV, often affects women of childbearing age. BV occurs when the normal, healthful bacteria in the vagina become unbalanced.

Many women who get BV have no symptoms. However, it can cause a watery vaginal discharge with an unpleasant odor, as well as burning and itching around the vaginal area.

The cause of BV isn’t always known. But, in many cases, BV is caused by one of the following:

  • douching, which may upset the vagina’s natural bacteria
  • bathing with antiseptic or antibacterial products
  • having a new sex partner or multiple sex partners
  • using strongly scented products in the vaginal area
  • harsh clothing detergents
  • smoking

Many women may get BV and not know it, since it often causes no symptoms. However, it can be potentially dangerous to a pregnant woman and her fetus. A pregnant woman should discuss any vaginal itching, burning, or discharge with her doctor and get tested for BV when needed.

A BV test involves taking a sample of fluid from the vagina and sending it to a lab for analysis. If the test is positive, a pregnant woman will likely undergo treatment with antibiotics.

Because BV is a result of an imbalance of bacteria, replacing the body’s “friendly” bacteria may be helpful in some women. A 2014 review found that certain probiotics, when taken by mouth, might help prevent or treat BV. The probiotics studied were Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1, and Lactobacillus fermentum RC-14.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

STDs, also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), can occur as a result of having sexual contact with an infected person.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that STDs are at an unprecedented high in the United States, with millions of cases reported each year. People can reduce the risk of getting an STD by:

  • abstaining from sex
  • using a condom correctly each time
  • having fewer sex partners
  • getting tested for STDs before having sex
  • getting treatment when needed
  • getting the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine

Many STDs can cause vaginal itching, among other symptoms. It’s important to have STDs treated, as some may cause long-term problems such as pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and pregnancy complications. A woman can also pass certain STDs to her baby during childbirth.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD in the U.S., with more than 1.5 million cases reported to the CDC in 2015. For women, symptoms of chlamydia may include:

  • itching in the genital area
  • foul smelling vaginal discharge
  • stomach pain
  • pain or bleeding during intercourse
  • burning during urination
  • swelling around the vaginal area or anus

Chlamydia can cause serious long-term health problems if it’s not treated. It often has no symptoms, so people who are sexually active should be tested regularly for chlamydia.

If the test is positive, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics for both partners to clear the infection. Both partners will need to avoid all sexual contact until treatment is complete and the infection is gone and should use condoms to prevent future infection.

Genital herpes

The herpes simplex virus, also known as HSV, causes genital herpes.

Genital herpes can cause vaginal itching and burning, followed by the appearance of blisters around the genital area. These blisters break and leave behind sores that can take many weeks to heal.

When herpes symptoms appear, this is known as an outbreak. In this case, a person with genital herpes should avoid all sexual contact to avoid spreading the herpes to others.

If a woman has an outbreak during childbirth, she can pass it to her baby. This can cause dangerous, even fatal, complications for the baby.

There is no cure for genital herpes, but antiviral medications can reduce outbreaks. In many cases, pregnant women who have genital herpes will be advised to undergo a cesarean delivery instead of a vaginal birth. This may help protect the baby from contracting the herpes infection.

Genital warts

Not to be confused with herpes, genital warts usually appear as flesh-colored or gray bumps on the genital area. They are caused by HPV. Vaginal itching or burning may occur, but some people have no symptoms.

Genital warts can usually be cured with surgical removal, freezing, topical medications, or other options. Treatment is needed to reduce the risk of passing genital warts to others and to prevent discomfort.

Pubic lice (crabs)

Pubic lice pass from person to person through close contact, usually during sexual activity. They can cause intense itching of the vaginal and pubic area. Pubic lice may also cause red or blue spots on the skin, and the lice, or their eggs, may be visible. The eggs may look like yellowish-white ovals, while adult lice are gray-brown with 6 legs.

Pubic lice can generally be treated with nonprescription lice treatments. However, if these treatments don’t work, a person should see their doctor.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis, or “trich,” affects nearly 3.7 million people in the U.S. per year. Like many STDs, it may cause vaginal itching or burning, or it may cause no symptoms.

Trichomoniasis is curable with antibiotics and should be treated. In addition, a trich infection makes a person more likely to get HIV and other STDs.

Treatment is also crucial for pregnant women, because trich during pregnancy can cause a low birthweight baby, preterm birth, or an infection in the unborn baby.

Irritation or allergy

In some cases, minor vaginal itching may result from using scented laundry detergent or feminine products such as pads, tampons, or feminine deodorants. The itching will usually go away after a woman stops using these products.

To avoid this issue, women may choose to use products labeled “fragrance free” or “unscented.” Douching is also not recommended, as it may lead to vaginal irritation, BV, and yeast infections.

Some women may have an allergic reaction to latex condoms, which may result in vaginal itching or irritation. People who suspect they might be allergic to latex condoms should ask their doctor about alternatives.

Although vaginal itching can be embarrassing or bothersome, most cases of it can be treated by consulting a doctor.

To help avoid possible long-term health problems, it’s best to push aside any embarrassment and determine the cause of the itching, so proper treatment can be provided.

Written by Jennifer Berry

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