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Unique to Women

Vaginal Infections (Vaginitis)

All women secrete moisture and mucus from the membranes that line the vagina and cervix. This discharge is clear or slightly milky and may be somewhat slippery or clumpy. When dry, it may be yellowish. When a woman is sexually aroused, under stress, or at midcycle, this secretion increases. It normally causes no irritation or inflammation of the vagina or vulva. If you want to examine your own discharge, collect a sample from inside your vagina--with a washed finger--and smear it on clear glass (such as a glass slide).

Many bacteria normally grow in the vagina of a healthy woman. Some of them, especially lactobacilli, help to keep the vagina healthy, maintaining an acid pH and controlling overgrowth of potentially bad bacteria. When infections occur, you may have an abnormal discharge, mild or severe itching and burning of the vulva, chafing of the thighs, and (in some cases) frequent urination. (Chronic vaginal symptoms sometimes result from skin conditions of the vulva and vagina, such as eczema or psoriasis.)

Vaginal infections may be due to lowered resistance (from stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, other infections in our bodies); douching or use of “feminine hygiene” sprays; pregnancy; taking birth control pills, other hormones, or antibiotics; diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition; cuts, abrasions, and other irritations in the vagina (from childbirth, intercourse without enough lubrication, tampons, or using an instrument in the vagina medically or for masturbation). We can also get infections during sex with a partner who has them (see Chapter 15, "Sexually Transmitted Infections"). Chronic vaginal infections may be a sign of serious medical problems such as HIV infection and diabetes.

Preventing Vaginal Infections

  1. Gently wash your vulva and anus regularly. Pure, unscented mineral oil cleans well and does not dry out the tissues as soap can. Pat your vulva dry after bathing, and try to keep it dry. Also, don’t use other people’s towels or washcloths. Avoid irritating sprays and soaps (use special cleansers for sensitive skin). Avoid talcum powder, since some studies have linked it to ovarian cancer.22

  2. Avoid nylon underwear and panty hose--they retain moisture and heat, which help harmful bacteria to grow faster. Wear clean underpants, preferably all cotton. Launder all underwear in hot, soapy water. Be sure to rinse thoroughly.

  3. Avoid pants that are tight in the crotch and thighs.

  4. Always wipe your genital and anal area from front to back, so that bacteria from the anus won’t get into the vagina or urethra.

  5. Make sure your sex partners are clean. A man should wash his penis daily and especially before making love. Using a condom can provide added protection. If you or your male partner is being treated for a genital infection, make sure he wears a condom during intercourse. Better yet, avoid intercourse until the infection has cleared up.

  6. Use a sterile, water-soluble jelly if you need lubrication (K-Y jelly or Astroglide, not Vaseline). Spermicidal gels and creams, which usually contain nonoxynol-9, may cause irritation and are no longer recommended for preventing infections (see p. 269 in Chapter 14, "Safer Sex").

  7. Avoid any kind of vaginal penetration that is painful or abrasive.

  8. Cut down on coffee, alcohol, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. Diets high in sugars can increase sugar in the vagina, which feeds bacteria.

  9. Avoid douching of any kind unless specifically recommended by your health care provider. Although you may feel cleaner, douching can destroy the “good” bacteria in your vagina.

  10. Avoid inserting yogurt to relieve mild symptoms of vaginal infections, other than yeast infections, because this can prevent proper diagnosis and may even contribute to chronic vaginal problems.

  11. Eat well and get enough rest! Not taking care of yourself makes you more susceptible to infection.

  12. Avoid using tampons, especially if you have a history of frequent vaginal infections.
Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective. 
22. B. L. Harlow et al., Perineal Exposure to Talc and Ovarian Cancer Risk, Obstetrics and Gynecology 80, no. 1 (July 1992): 19-26.



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