When itching or irritation are accompanied by pain around the vaginal and vulval area, it could be a sign of a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Both are common infections of the vagina and vulva and are oftentimes confused with one another due to their similar symptoms. However, these infections are triggered by different circumstances and require different forms of treatment. Most women will experience at least one of these infections once in their lifetime. Hence, knowing the differences between them and the symptoms to look out for is important in order to diagnose them early and treat them accordingly.
Yeast Infections vs Bacterial Vaginosis
Yeast infections are a fungal infection that is caused by an overgrowth of the naturally occuring yeast in the vagina and vulva — this typically results from:
an increase of estrogen levels in the body (which can occur during pregnancy or with the use of high-dose birth control pills)
regular antibiotic use (which can also kill healthy bacteria)
an impaired immune system.
While not a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), research suggests that there is an increased risk of developing a yeast infection in the first experience of regular sexual intercourse.
Bacterial vaginosis on the other hand, is a bacterial infection that is caused by an overgrowth of bad bacteria known as anaerobes. When the natural balance of bacteria is upset, anaerobic bacteria can grow out of control and lead to bacterial vaginosis. This could result from douching (which can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria), a natural lack of good bacteria, or having multiple or new sex partners, although the relationship between bacterial vaginosis and having multiple partners is not yet fully understood by medical professionals.
While bacterial vaginosis doesn’t typically cause complications, it could sometimes be cause for concern. For instance, pregnant women who have bacterial vaginosis can experience premature deliveries, and having this infection makes women more susceptible to STIs such as HIV and herpes.
How can I differentiate them?
Itching and irritation in the vagina and vulva, accompanied by vaginal pain and a burning sensation during sexual intercourse or urination, are all symptoms of both yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. While it might appear difficult to differentiate between the two infections since they share similar symptoms, the most effective way is through observing the discharge.
The vaginal discharge of yeast infections is watery, odor-free and is thick and white with an almost cottage-cheese appearance. With bacterial vaginosis however, it is foul-smelling, and appears thin and gray, white or green in color.
Treatment and prevention
Yeast infections can often be remedied with over-the-counter medications such as antifungal vaginal creams, and will usually clear within a week of treatment. If it is your first time experiencing these symptoms, and you are unsure whether it is a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis, it is recommended that you see a doctor for a more accurate diagnosis. If the symptoms of a yeast infection continue to persist even with over-the-counter medication, see a doctor. In this case, it is quite possible that the infection has developed into bacterial vaginosis.
As bacterial vaginosis can only be treated with prescription medication, it is advisable to see a doctor when you experience vaginal discharge that is accompanied by an odor or a fever.
The risk of developing a yeast infection can be prevented with non-medical methods such as wearing underwear with a cotton crotch that doesn’t fit too tightly, avoiding the use of scented feminine products and refraining from unnecessary antibiotic use. Similarly, bacterial vaginosis can be prevented by avoiding douching.
The differences between yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, while small, can be crucial to getting the right treatment. If ever you are ever in doubt, it is advisable to consult with a doctor immediately.