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The Telltale Itch: Bacterial Vaginosis vs Yeast Infections

Why yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis occur, and how to know the difference.

We’ve all experienced that irritating itch and recurring general vaginal discomfort that signals something is out of balance. The question is, is it a yeast infection? Bacterial vaginosis (BV)? Something else? 

Every healthy vagina has a combination of yeast and bacteria that grow naturally and live in harmony most of the time. When vaginal bacteria are in balance everything is good. However, when you have too much of one or the other, problems arise. Knowing what is happening and why is the first step in maintaining vaginal health. It's important to learn the difference between bacterial vaginosis vs yeast infections so you know the signs and symptoms to properly treat them and identify if your vaginal odor is normal.

Yeast infections

Yeast infections occur when there is too much yeast in your vagina. It is specifically caused by a fungal yeast called candida, which grows rapidly when there isn’t enough bacteria to maintain a healthy PH. Yeast infections are very common -- roughly 75 percent of women (three out of four) will experience them at some point in their lives.

Yeast Infection Symptoms: Itchiness, burning, swelling of the vagina and vulva, and/or a thick or chunky discharge that have a vaguely yeasty smell. Sex can be painful or uncomfortable when you have a vaginal yeast infection, and the symptoms will get worse the longer it goes untreated.

Yeast Infection Causes: These infections can occur with no clear trigger, but they are often the result of taking antibiotics, which kill the natural bacteria in your body, and hormone fluctuations due to pregnancy or breastfeeding. They can also be triggered by douches and sprays that disrupt the natural order of things, vagina-wise. Women with diabetes or a weakened immune system may also experience more frequent yeast infections because their bodies have a harder time maintaining that balance.

 A vaginal yeast infection is not contagious, and it is also not considered a sexually transmitted infection. However, sexual intercourse can cause a yeast infection when your own vaginal balance shifts in response to your partner’s genital chemistry.

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

Your vagina is home to lots of different types of bacteria, which is normal and healthy. This includes the "good bacteria" and the "bad bacteria". BV is a bacterial infection that occurs when the bad bacteria outweighs the good, upsetting the balance in your vagina. Lactobacillus -- the good bacteria – is more acidic than other harmful bacteria, which allows it to keep the others in check. But if your lactobacillus levels get too low, the bad bacteria (gardnerella vaginalis) can flourish causing BV.   

Symptoms: Many women who contract this vaginal infection experience no symptoms at all, or the symptoms are so mild that they can be easily ignored. The most  noticeable and common symptom is a thin vaginal discharge that may smell fishy, especially after sex, and can be green or dull gray. Some people also experience vaginal itching and irritation.

Causes: BV is a fairly common vaginal infection and there is no scientifically proven cause. Some experts suspect that frequent use of douches, sprays, deodorants or other irritating products may increase the risk of getting BV by throwing off the vaginal pH balance. 

BV is not a sexually transmitted disease. However, it may be triggered by sexual activity with one or more partners by causing changes in your own vaginal balance that allows the bad bacteria to take over.

Both of these conditions are easily treatable. If you suspect you have one or possibly think you have BV and a yeast infection at the same time, talk to your doctor about the best course of action.