If you're suffering from a recurring yeast infection, you might be surprised to learn that it may not actually be a yeast infection at all. Many women these days are misdiagnosing another totally different vaginal condition, according to Lauren Streicher, MD, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University.
"One of the big misconceptions is every time someone thinks they have vaginal irritation or odor or an abnormal discharge, they think it’s yeast, and in fact, most times, it’s not," Dr. Streicher tells FirstForWomen.com. "Most times, it’s bacterial vaginosis, which is an imbalance in the bacteria in the vagina."
This imbalance is caused by an alteration in the vaginal pH, which means how acidic or basic it is. Normally, the vaginal pH is pretty low, between 3.5 to 4.5, which allows the healthy bacteria in your body to thrive. But if something elevates the pH — such as sexual intercourse or the use of lubricants and douches — the "good" bacteria have trouble thriving and the "bad" bacteria start to take over.
How to Tell if It's a Yeast Infection or Bacterial Vaginosis
As you may be aware, a vaginal yeast infection is much different than a bacterial condition: Instead, it's a fungal infection affecting the vagina due to a yeast called Candida, according to the US National Library of Medicine. So not only are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis caused by two separate things, they also yield different symptoms. It's so important to be able to tell the difference between the two so you can get the proper treatment ASAP.
If you have a yeast infection, you can expect to see a white, thick vaginal discharge that resembles cottage cheese. You'll probably feel very itchy down there, and you may spot some redness on the vulva and around the opening of the vagina. You may also notice a mild yeasty odor, but it probably won't be too strong of a smell.
On the other hand, bacterial vaginosis tends to cause a watery discharge that is not too clumpy or "cottage-cheesey" at all. As opposed to being itchy, bacterial vaginosis tends to feel more irritating in your downstairs area. And unlike a yeast infection, there does tend to be quite a strong odor associated with bacterial vaginosis. This odor can get even worse after you have intercourse, often smelling strong and "fishy."
In case you're wondering, it is possible to have both a yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis at the same time. As Streicher puts it, that's when things can get really confusing, especially when women are experiencing symptoms of both conditions simultaneously. If you're not sure whether you have a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (or both, ugh!), it's crucial that you visit the gynecologist to see what's going on.
How to Treat Bacterial Vaginosis
If you find out that you do have bacterial vaginosis, you'll need to be prescribed antibiotics by a doctor in order to treat it. You may be asked to take medicine orally or use a topical cream or gel on your vagina. But the last thing you want to do is to be reaching for your trusty yeast infection treatment when it's not a yeast infection that needs to be treated after all.
"So many women spend so much time and energy with over-the-counter stuff and then don't get better," says Streicher.
Don't let that happen to you!