Prevention & Recovery

6 vaginal issues and how to treat them

6 vaginal issues and how to treat them

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Prevention & Recovery

6 vaginal issues and how to treat them

1. Yeast infection
What is it: Yeast is normally present in the vagina and the gut, but various triggers—illness, antibiotic use (particularly penicillin), diabetes—can lead to an overgrowth. Approximately 75 percent of women will have a yeast infection at some point in their lives, and almost half of all women will have two or more.

Symptoms: Thick white discharge and intense itching.

What to do: If you're experiencing symptoms for the first time, visit your doctor to confirm the diagnosis with a swab. If you're prone to yeast infections and know the signs, over-the-counter antifungal medications are safe, says Dr. Ellen Giesbrecht, MD, department head of obstetrics and gynecology at the BC Women's Hospital. (But if you don't respond, don't continue to self-medicate—see a doctor.) To help prevent future infections, Dr. Giesbrecht recommends wearing cotton underwear, frequently changing pads and tampons, using nonscented, pH-neutral bath products, and eating a balanced diet that's low in processed sugar and caffeine.

2. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
What is it: This infection is caused by an overgrowth of normal bacteria in the vagina due to a number of possible factors, such as a new sexual partner or douching.

Symptoms: Greyish discharge, a fishy smell, itching or burning.

What to do: After confirming your suspicions with a swab, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. "It's a nuisance, but it's not dangerous," says Dr. Giesbrecht. If you're pregnant, in pain or have bloody discharge, make sure to see a doctor immediately.

3. Vulvodyna
What is it: This disorder results in a chronic, painful burning sensation in the genital area, and as many as 15 percent of Canadian women may suffer from it. Doctors don't know what causes it, but it may be triggered by chronic yeast infections, muscle spasms or a genetic predisposition. It can often make sex, sports or even sitting uncomfortable.

Symptoms: Burning sensation, stinging, rawness, itchiness and pain around the genital area.

What to do: First, see a doctor to make sure you're not missing a bigger issue. Sometimes, initial vulva pain can be caused by a skin irritation like contact dermatitis from a detergent or a scented product, says Dr. Amanda Selk, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Women's College Hospital in Toronto. If the pain persists, talk to your doctor about lifestyle and prescription solutions, which can include topical and oral medications.

4. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
What is it: This complex syndrome is characterized by a hormonal imbalance in which the ovaries produce more androgens (typically known as a male hormone) than needed. This can interfere with egg production and can cause cysts to grow on the ovaries. It affects around six to 10 percent of Canadian women. PCOS tends to be found in patients who are overweight, though not exclusively.

Symptoms: Irregular periods, acne, excess hair on the face or body, multiple fine cysts on the ovaries and potential fertility issues.

What to do: Treatment of PCOS depends on age and fertility. If you're not trying to get pregnant, your doctor will likely start you on the pill to help control your menstrual cycle. If you are trying to get pregnant, your doctor can work with you on alternative treatments to manage symptoms.

5. Endometriosis
What is it: Endometriosis occurs when tissue that normally lines the uterus (called the endometrium) grows outside of the uterus. It affects 176 million women and girls worldwide and can impair fertility.

Symptoms: Heavy periods with pelvic cramping, painful sex, painful urination and painful bowel movements during menstruation.

What to do: Your physician will study your history, then perform a physical exam and may even confirm the extent of the condition via a laparoscopy. Once diagnosed, patients typically try treatments such as hormonal therapies. If those treatments fail, doctors may try surgery to remove endometrial tissue.

6. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
What they are:  Diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomoniasis are infections spread through sexual contact with an infected person.

Symptoms: A sudden change in discharge, bloody discharge, painful sex, painful urination, abdominal pain, sores, rashes, or unidentifiable bumps. STIs can also be asymptomatic.

What to do: Get an STI screening every year (or more frequently if you're high-risk). A regular HIV test is also recommended if you're sexually active or an IV drug user. While some STIs respond to treatments like antibiotics or antivirals, others can become life-long chronic illnesses or even lead to death.

For more on women's health issues, read the answers to your most pressing feminine care questions.  

This content is vetted by medical experts

This story was originally titled "What's Going On Down There?" in the May 2014 issue.
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Prevention & Recovery

6 vaginal issues and how to treat them