Wellness·6 min read

How To Tell the Difference Between Bacterial Vaginosis and a Yeast Infection

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Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
May 9, 2022

When the weather is warm, there's more to think about — health wise — than just staying hydrated and slathering on sunscreen. Read: preventing the bacterial community inside your vagina from getting too hot and steamy. Because that could put you at risk for developing bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection. Both conditions are forms of vaginitis, or vaginal inflammation. And they’re pretty common. A vaginal yeast infection affects up to three out of four women at some point in their lives and is the second most common cause of vaginitis. It’s topped by BV, which is the most common vaginal problem in women ages 15-44. Affecting a third of women in the US every year (although rates among Black women are higher).

BV and yeast infections can cause a range of uncomfortable symptoms. Including some that can appear in both, like vaginal itchiness and irregular discharge. But there are also some major differences to keep in mind. We skimm’d them so that you’ll have an easier time noticing if/when they come up. And be armed with the info you need to possibly treat them.

What’s a yeast infection? 

Healthy vaginas typically contain a type of yeast called Candida. And it’s far from one of the ingredients you use to make bread. Candida lives in the vagina and can also be found in the mouth, throat, and on skin. And typically doesn’t cause any issues. But sometimes the delicate balance of microorganisms in your vagina can change. Causing the yeast to overgrow or penetrate your vagina’s deeper cell layers. And surprise: you might have a yeast infection (aka vulvovaginal candidiasis). 

The risk of a yeast infection is higher in people if… 

  • They’re having sex…Getting down and dirty can introduce new bacteria to the body. Whether that’s from your partner’s fingers, their penis, or your own sex toys. And that bacteria can negatively interact with the bacteria already living in your vagina (including Lactobacilli, which helps control yeast levels), triggering a yeast infection. Note: Yeast infections aren’t sexually transmitted diseases. Because most aren’t transmitted from person to person, and people can get them without having sex.

  • They have a hormonal imbalance…This can happen when you’re pregnant, taking hormonal contraceptives, or on your period, among other situations. Hormonal imbalances can disrupt your body's natural estrogen levels. And that can cause candida to grow out of control.

  • They’re in a warmer climate…Yeast thrives in a warm and wet environment. During warmer months, be proactive when doing things like exercising or swimming in the pool. Wear clothes that are dry, breathable, and loose-fitting (think: anything made with cotton) whenever possible. And change out of wet clothes as soon as you can. Especially those made of synthetic materials like spandex or nylon, since they can trap moisture and heat. 

  • They have diabetes… Diabetes is a condition that can make it hard to manage blood sugar levels. If it goes untreated, blood sugar levels can spike. Giving the yeast a feast. And contributing to overgrowth. 

  • They’re taking antibiotics… Broad-spectrum antibiotics can kill a range of bad bacteria in your body. (Think: azithromycin and amoxicillin). But they can also lower the number of good, naturally occurring bacteria in your body, too. That can make it difficult for the bacteria to control yeast levels. 

  • They have a weakened immune system...People with autoimmune diseases or chronic conditions that require meds (which can sometimes weaken the immune system) might be more susceptible to yeast infections because their bodies aren’t able to fight off infections as well as someone who doesn’t have those conditions.

Symptoms of a yeast infection can include burning in the vagina — especially while peeing or having sex. And your discharge might become clumpy (think: cottage cheese texture) and white. But it likely won’t smell. There might also be some itchiness and irritation in the vagina or vulva (aka the outer part of your genitals, including your clitoris and labia). 

And how is bacterial vaginosis different? 

Bacterial vaginosis usually develops when there’s an imbalance in the good and bad bacteria living in the vagina. Researchers don’t fully understand what causes bacterial vaginosis. But they know that people have a higher chance of developing BV if they’re sexually active (especially with new and/or multiple sex partners), aren’t using condoms, or use a douche to “clean” or “wash out” the vagina (which, btw, doctors say you shouldn’t do, especially since your vagina is self-cleaning).

Most people who experience BV won’t have any symptoms. But those who do might have “fishy” smelling discharge. And it can be a gray or white color. Up to 30% of BV cases heal without any treatment. But leaving it untreated can also up your risk of getting an STD. And if you’re pregnant, it can increase your risk for delivering prematurely. Also worth noting: people who’ve been treated for BV commonly get it again within three to 12 months. 

What are the best ways to treat them? 

Your treatment will likely depend on the severity and, for yeast infections, the frequency of the conditions. But they break down something like this. 

For yeast infections…Treatments for mild to moderate infections might include antifungal medications or a one-time, single dose of the prescription medicine diflucan. The antifungal medications can be found OTC or by prescription. And they typically come in different forms (think: ointments, tablets, creams). Note: diflucan isn’t recommended for people who are pregnant. More severe yeast infections might require long-term use of those antifungal meds, more than one dose of the diflucan. 

For bacterial vaginosis…There are no OTC meds that can treat BV. So your doc might recommend antibiotics (which kill bacteria) or antiprotozoals (which kill protozoa, single-celled organisms). They can come in oral, cream, and gel forms. Your doctor might recommend a different treatment plan or give you another round of antibiotics if the infection doesn’t go away.  

As always, make sure to talk to your doc about the best treatment options for your particular case.

theSkimm

You may experience bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection at some point in your long, close relationship with your vagina. So it’s important that you’re armed with the knowledge to tackle them. The earlier you catch it, the faster you’ll be able to treat it. Keeping your lady parts healthy. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 


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