Vaginal irritation is characterized by uncomfortable symptoms such as itching, burning, and unusual discharge. The cause of vaginal irritation is usually an infection.
According to a 2018 article, infections are typically the most common cause of vaginal irritation. Changing hormone levels and reactions to products such as scented soap are also possible triggers.
The medical term for vaginal irritation is vaginitis. When irritation affects both the vagina and the vulva (which refers to the outside part of the female reproductive organs), it is known as vulvovaginitis.
Most females will experience vaginitis at least once in their lifetime. Treatment will typically depend on the cause of the condition and may include antibiotics, over-the-counter medications, or home remedies.
This article will look at some causes of vaginal irritation and the treatment options available.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginitis, accounting for around 40–50% of all cases.
BV occurs due to changes in the balance of the natural array of microorganisms in the vagina. Specifically, in BV, there is an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria.
According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), douching and having new or multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of BV.
Some symptoms of BV include:
- vaginal itching, burning, or pain
- a thin discharge that may be white or gray
- a fishy smell that is especially noticeable after sex
- a burning sensation during urination
A doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat BV.
Some people use home remedies such as probiotics, lactic acid-based treatments, and antiseptics to prevent or treat BV. However, studies suggest that these alternative therapies have little effect. They may even be dangerous.
According to a 2020 review, probiotics are promising for the treatment or prevention of BV.
People with BV should avoid douching. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that there are no data to show that it is effective at treating BV or relieving the symptoms. Douching might also increase the risk of BV.
A yeast infection, or candidiasis, occurs when there is an overgrowth of the yeast that naturally exists in the vagina.
The microorganism responsible for most yeast infections is called Candida albicans.
Some symptoms of a yeast infection include:
- a thick, odorless vaginal discharge that resembles cottage cheese
- a swollen or itchy vulva
- difficult or painful urination
- pain during sex
A person may experience only a few of these symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe.
According to the OWH, a doctor will prescribe antifungal drugs to treat yeast infections. These include clotrimazole or miconazole, which is the active ingredient in several Monistat products.
Many of these drugs are available without a prescription. They come as creams or suppositories that a person can insert into the vagina. The course of treatment ranges from 1–7 days.
In some cases, a doctor might prescribe an oral antifungal medication.
The OWH also say that people see a healthcare provider if they think that they have a yeast infection.
Some people may mistake a yeast infection for BV or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). A doctor can confirm whether or not a person is experiencing a yeast infection and ensure that they receive the right treatment.
For people who experience recurring yeast infections, boric acid suppositories may be an effective treatment. These are available without a prescription.
As for other types of home remedy for yeast infections, one 2015 review suggests that there is not enough evidence to confirm whether or not they are effective. They may also cause adverse effects.
Examples of such home remedies include:
- inserting garlic cloves into the vagina
- applying tea tree oil to the area
- using yogurt that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus, either orally or by inserting it into the vagina
The same review states that using garlic or tea tree oil intravaginally can cause serious adverse effects, such as skin irritation or allergic reactions.
Vaginal irritation may also occur due to an STI called trichomoniasis, or trich.
According to the CDC, a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis causes this condition.
About 70% of people who have trich do not have symptoms. However, if symptoms do occur, they can include:
- an increased amount of vaginal discharge
- foul-smelling discharge that is gray, green, or yellow
- burning or itching of the vulva and vagina
- discomfort or pain during urination and sex
Trich is a very common STI in the United States.
A doctor will prescribe antibiotics. This will usually be metronidazole or tinidazole.
Treating all sex partners at the same time will help stop trich from recurring. Also, people should avoid having sex until all sex partners finish their course of treatment.
Itching, burning, or flushing of the vulva without unusual vaginal discharge could be the result of an allergy or reaction to an irritant. Another symptom of noninfectious vaginitis is pelvic pain, especially during sex.
Tight clothing, soaps, douches, sex toys, and condoms or other contraceptive devices are just a few of the things that can irritate the delicate skin of the vulva.
Treatment for noninfectious vaginitis depends on the cause.
If a person with vaginitis can identify the product that is causing the irritation, they should stop using it.
To help reduce the symptoms, a person can try:
- minimizing scratching
- wearing loose-fitting clothing and underwear
- not wearing pantyhose or other nylon clothing
- keeping cool
- applying petroleum jelly to the area
If a person is experiencing contact dermatitis, they should try:
- washing once or twice per day using lukewarm water or a cleanser that is soap-free
- avoiding perfumed wipes, pads, or tampons
- changing pads and tampons frequently
Atrophic vaginitis is another form of noninfectious vaginitis.
According to the Australian Menopause Society, a person may also experience:
- pain during sex
- vaginal dryness
- light bleeding
- persistent, foul-smelling discharge
Low dose estrogen in the form of an intravaginal cream or ring may help relieve symptoms. Vaginal moisturizers and lubricants may also provide relief.
A person can also try:
- wearing cotton underwear
- not wearing tight underwear or pants
- removing wet clothing, such as bathing suits or exercise clothes, as soon as possible
- not using feminine hygiene products
- using a vaginal lubricant during sexual activity
A person should see a doctor if they experience any vaginal irritation or any of the following symptoms:
- unusual vaginal discharge
- burning during urination
- pain during sex
- itching or burning
Vaginal irritation, or vaginitis, has a wide range of potential causes.
Because the symptoms are similar across different types of vaginitis, people who think that they may have the condition should see a doctor to ensure that they have the right diagnosis and treatment.