Vaginal infections affect a significant number of young women in Nigeria. Recent studies have shown a prevalence rate of between 17% and 25% across different parts of the country. Most types of vaginal infections can cause discomfort and pain. If left untreated, vaginal infections may lead to complications that can have adverse effects on a woman’s health. The good news, however, is that most vaginal infections can be treated or managed.
In this article, we will discuss some types of vaginal infections including their symptoms, possible complications as well as some preventive measures.
Types of Vaginal Infections
There are several types of vaginal infections which affect women. These are caused by viruses, fungi or bacteria. Here we will look at some of the most common infections which affect Nigerian women.
Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus known as Candida Albicans. These infections occur when Candida species get into the mucosal lining of the vagina. Penetration of the mucosal lining of the vagina by Candida results in inflammation. Symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection include:
- A sticky and thick white discharge
- Itching, burning, and irritation in and around the vagina
- Flushing and swelling around the vulva
In some cases, symptoms may worsen before a menstrual period.
Bacteria occur naturally in the vagina. However, it is possible to have an overgrowth of these bacteria. When this occurs, the affected person has bacterial vaginosis. The overgrowth is caused by a decrease in the number of lactobacilli in the vagina which produce hydrogen peroxide.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, not everyone with bacterial vaginosis will manifest the symptoms. But, if the symptoms do present, then the affected person can expect:
- A thin white or gray discharge
- Itching of the vulva
- A burning sensation when you are urinating
- Pain during sex
- A fishy smell from the vagina
Bacterial Vaginosis is not considered to be a sexually transmitted infection. However, the role of transmissibility is yet to be fully understood.
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection. It can cause permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system while also increasing the risk of ectopic pregnancy. It is important to note that most chlamydia patients do not manifest any symptoms. However, where symptoms do appear, their manifestation may be several weeks after infection.
Common symptoms of chlamydia include:
- Painful intercourse
- A burning sensation while urinating
- Yellow, green, or white discharge
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection. It affects a woman’s reproductive tract. It can also infect other parts of the body such as the mouth, throat and eyes. A 2021 article by Springer and Salen reported that over 50% of females do not experience symptoms of gonorrhea. Symptoms of this condition include pain in the pelvis, vaginal discharge. vaginal bleeding between periods and pain/ swelling of the labia.
This is an infection transmitted by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). The transmission occurs through any type of sexual contact with the genitals, mouth or anus. Symptoms of genital herpes include headaches, fever, itching, tingling on the skin, pain or burning sensation while urinating, painful sores or ulcers on the genitals and swelling of the vulva. There is no cure for genital herpes.
Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection. They are caused by strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Skin to skin contact during sexual intercourse is the primary means of transmission. It is manifested in the form of warts. They appear in various parts including around or inside the vagina and around the anus. These warts may occur separately or in clusters. The warts have a rough appearance and in some cases could bleed. The warts could also be accompanied by itching and other forms of discomfort.
Trichomoniasis (also known as “trich”) is a common sexually transmitted infection. It is caused by Trichomonas vaginalis, a protozoan parasite.
A 2016 study by Oyeyemi et al., published in the International Journal of STD & AIDS reported a high prevalence of trich in pregnant Nigerian women. Over 3.7 million women have the infection in the United States. Over 70% of those affected do not show any signs or symptoms. In some cases, symptoms may begin to show within 5-28 days. Others may not develop any symptoms at all. Symptoms, if present, may include:
- Burning, flushed, itchy or sore genitals
- Discomfort while urinating
- Changes in vaginal discharge (including color changes)
- increase in the volume of discharge, or the release of a thin discharge
Complications Associated with Vaginal Infections
Vaginal infections left untreated can result in complications which can have varying effects on a woman’s reproductive health. In the case of Genital Warts, possible complications could include localised disfigurement while advanced stage disease could result in the warts becoming malignant. In the case of gonorrhea, one possible complication is infertility.
Treatment of Vaginal Infections
The course of treatment depends on the root cause of the infection. To determine the root cause, doctors will take a vaginal swab which is then analysed in a laboratory. Bacterial infections can typically be treated with antibiotics.
Some infections cannot be cured. In these situations, a doctor will determine an appropriate therapy to manage the symptoms of the infection. Genital Herpes and Genital Warts fall into this category. Symptoms of Genital Herpes can be managed using antiviral therapies. A 2021 article shows that symptoms of herpes usually disappear after 19 days. It is worth noting though, that just because your symptoms have disappeared doesn’t mean that you’re no longer infectious. A 2020 article by Stephen et al., reports that 80% of people usually have the HPV infection cleared from their body within 2 years. Doctors can surgically remove warts. They can also prescribe some topical solutions to remove them.
Can I Just Get Antibiotics and Treat Myself?
NO! A medical professional is in the best position to determine the best course of treatment. This will require an assessment of the individual’s condition. The course of treatment will take the root cause of the infection and the patient’s medical history into consideration. An individual should not ingest certain medications when he/ she is in a particular state or has certain conditions in their medical history. This is why a medical professional’s assessment is critical.
Preventing Vaginal Infections
Sexual intercourse is a primary means of transmitting many vaginal infections. The most reliable way to prevent sexual transmission is to maintain a mutually monogamous sexual relationship. Individuals who do not practice monogamy should practice safe sex by using condom during intercourse. It is important to note that this method is not full proof in preventing transmission of certain infections including genital herpes and warts.
Other measures which can prevent infection include:
- Not douching
- Not wearing tight or damp clothing (especially underwear)
- Changing underwear daily
- Changing sanitary products every 4-8 hours
- Avoid coming in contact with latex condoms and lubricants if allergic to them
- Wiping from front to back after using the toilet (this prevents germs from the anus making contact with vagina)
Women should take measures to avoid vaginal infections. In certain cases, they can be quite difficult to manage. The affected individual should take measures to address them as quickly as possible. They can cause serious complications if left untreated for too long. Contact a doctor the moment you or your partner notice any of the symptoms related to them such as abnormal vaginal discharge or odour, itching, inflammation, warts etc. The doctor will guide you through the diagnosis and appropriate treatment of the identified condition.
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