“You have a vaginal infection.” These words will strike fear into the heart (and vaginas) of most women. After all, no one likes having a vagina that’s itchy, irritated, or producing discharge. But if you do find that you have a vaginal infection, what does this mean for your health — and your sex life?
There are two main types of vaginal infections, explains Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones, an OBGYN: a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. While they’re different, they do have some similarities in terms of symptoms, she says. “Both have colored discharge, both can cause odors, and both can cause itching and irritation.”
Most healthy vaginas have a balance of yeast and other kinds of bacteria. A yeast infection is when the yeast cells in the vagina multiply, throwing off the balance of the vaginal flora (which are the bacteria that live in the vagina). For many people, this results in seriously uncomfortable symptoms like itching, redness, and even a whitish, clumpy discharge. Sometimes, a yeast infection will also produce a yeasty smell, like bread or beer.
Bacterial vaginosis is another type of common vaginal infection, according to Dr. Kelly-Jones. Like a yeast infection, it happens when the balance of bacteria in the vagina changes, causing an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria vs healthy bacteria (lactobacillus is one of the most well-known healthy bacteria found in the vagina… and yes, it’s the same bacteria you can find in yogurt or a probiotic). Some research has demonstrated that BV (as it’s commonly abbreviated) can be triggered by sexual activity, especially when that involves sex with a new partner. People with BV often have a higher vaginal pH than people without the infection.
BV typically has fewer symptoms than a yeast infection, and many people with BV don’t have any symptoms at all (some report a whitish or yellowish discharge with a fishy smell). It’s possible to have BV for quite a while and not even know it, until you start to see or feel symptoms or if you are tested for it at an appointment. Often, BV goes away by itself, within a few days or weeks.
Both infections are treated in two common ways, either with a local treatment (a medication you apply directly to the vagina) or a systemic treatment (a medication you take orally), explains Dr. Kelly-Jones. You can talk with your healthcare provider about which would be better for you, based on your symptoms, preferences, and lifestyle.
Bacterial vaginosis is most often treated with an antibiotic medication, while a yeast infection is treated with an antifungal medication like fluconazole or clotrimazole (delivered orally or vaginally). Dr. Kelly-Jones says she often prescribes medications for patients over the phone based on their symptoms, so that may be an option if you can’t snag an in-office appointment — but this may not be possible if you’re a new patient. There are also over-the-counter medications, like Monistat, available for yeast infections — just check out the feminine health aisle at your local drug or grocery store.
Regardless of what type of infection you’ve got, it’s probably a good idea to refrain from intercourse until symptoms have cleared up, says Dr. Kelly-Jones. “Most women are just not comfortable to have intercourse when they have an infection.” If you have a male partner, she adds that the introduction of sperm into the vaginal environment could even worsen symptoms because of the fact that sperm can further alter the vagina’s pH. You can still engage in other types of sexual activity, but receiving oral sex might also be a no-no — it just depends on your comfort level and that of your partner, as some people may be grossed out.
You can’t pass BV to a male partner and it’s very rare that male partner gets any sort of irritation from a yeast infection. If you have sex with women, though, it is possible to pass BV to a partner — the jury is still out on the possibility of passing yeast infections, but that may also be possible.
If you find that you have recurring yeast infections or BV, it’s worth visiting with your doctor to discuss causes and treatment, as well as to troubleshoot why the infections keep coming back. For some people, diet changes (like reducing carbohydrates or sugar) can make a difference in symptoms, Dr. Kelly-Jones says. “What we eat is important to our overall well-being and health. Let’s look at the overall system and what’s going on.”