Vaginitis, or a vaginal infection, is marked by redness, itching, abnormal discharge and pain in the vaginal area. A fishy or foul odor might be a sign that something's wrong. Abnormal discharge might be more abundant in quantity, chunkier or heavier than usual, or gray, green or pink in color.
There are several different types of vaginal infections. Yeast infections are caused by an overabundance of yeast in the vagina, which may be the result of antibiotics, uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy or stress. Yeast infections are very common, but that doesn't mean that every itch in the vaginal region is a yeast infection; in fact, some studies have shown that women buying over-the-counter yeast infection medication often had a different kind of vaginitis [source: Brody]. Yeast infections are commonly mistaken for bacterial vaginosis, which is caused not by an overgrowth of yeast, but rather an overgrowth of bacteria. Bacterial vaginosis is usually accompanied by a fishy odor and is common in sexually active women, though it's not a sexually transmitted disease. Still, sexually transmitted infections can cause problems in the vaginal area -- itchiness and redness might be the result of diseases such as trichomoniasis, Chlamydia and gonorrhea. Bottom line: Head to a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
As women age, their vaginas change due to the drop of hormones that accompanies menopause. Older women are often at risk for vaginal atrophy, which is marked by vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls that result in painful intercourse. Doctors may prescribe topical estrogen treatments or simply advise women to use more lubricant during sexual activity. Aging is also a risk factor for vaginal cancer, which is not very common and usually curable. More common, and a danger to women of all ages, is cervical cancer. The risk factors for cervical cancer include infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), multiple sexual partners, smoking and oral contraceptives.
To protect and maintain vaginal health, women should see a gynecologist at least once a year after the age of 18, or as soon as they become sexually active (whichever comes first). Gynecologists perform pelvic exams and Pap tests to check on the health of the female reproductive system. And there are things women can do to take care of their vaginas on a daily basis, including wiping front to back after using the restroom, washing the labia with a gentle, unscented cleanser, keeping the vaginal area dry, avoiding overly tight clothing, practicing safe sex, and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
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