Updated: Jul 09, 2021
Author: Hetal B Gor, MD, FACOG; Chief Editor: Michel E Rivlin, MD 


Practice Essentials

Vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina) is the most common gynecologic condition encountered in the office. It is a diagnosis based on the presence of symptoms of abnormal discharge, vulvovaginal discomfort, or both. Cervicitis may also cause a discharge and sometimes occurs with vaginitis. 

Discharge flows from the vagina daily as the body’s way of maintaining a normal healthy environment. Normal discharge is usually clear or milky with no malodor. A change in the amount, color, or smell; irritation; or itching or burning could be due to an imbalance of healthy bacteria in the vagina, leading to vaginitis.

The most common causes of vaginitis in symptomatic women are bacterial vaginosis (40-45%), vaginal candidiasis (20-25%), and trichomoniasis (15-20%); yet 7-72% of women with vaginitis may remain undiagnosed.

The workup for patients with vaginitis depends on the risk factors for infection and the age of the patient. Accurate diagnosis may be elusive, and care must be taken to distinguish vaginitis from other infectious and noninfectious causes of symptoms. All women presenting with abnormal vaginal discharge should have a careful pelvic examination. Condition-specific tests (ie, colposcopy and cervical biopsies) are indicated for suspected cervical cancer.

Studies that may be performed in cases of suspected vaginitis include saline wet mount, the so-called whiff test, pH testing, culture, nucleic acid amplification testing, and a number of other second-line tests (see Presentation, DDx, and Workup).

Treatment of vaginitis varies by cause and is directed at the relevant pathogen. Inpatient care usually is not indicated, unless serious pelvic infections arise or evidence of systemic infection in an immunocompromised host is present (see Treatment).


A complex and intricate balance of microorganisms maintains the normal vaginal flora. Important organisms include lactobacilli, corynebacteria, and yeast. Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria can be cultured from the vagina of prepubertal girls, pubertal adolescents, and adult women. A number of factors can change the composition of the vaginal flora, including the following:

  • Age

  • Sexual activity (or abuse)

  • Hormonal status

  • Hygiene

  • Immunologic status

  • Underlying skin diseases

The normal postmenarchal and premenopausal vaginal pH is 3.8-4.2. At this pH, growth of pathogenic organisms usually is inhibited. Disturbance of the normal vaginal pH can alter the vaginal flora, leading to overgrowth of pathogens. Factors that alter the vaginal environment include feminine hygiene products, contraceptives, vaginal medications, antibiotics, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), sexual intercourse, and stress.

The overgrowth of normally present bacteria, infecting bacteria, or viruses can cause symptoms of vaginitis. Chemical irritation also can be a significant factor. Atrophic vaginitis is associated with hypoestrogenism, and symptoms include dyspareunia, dryness, pruritus, and abnormal bleeding. A state of decreased estrogen can result in an altered risk of infection.

Based on data from 11 countries, Kenyon and Colebunders found evidence that the risk of bacterial vaginosis is increased in women whose male sexual partner is concurrently having sexual relations with other partners.[1]

The age of the patient affects the anatomy and physiology of the vagina. Prepubertal children have a more alkaline vaginal pH than do pubertal and postpubertal adolescents and women. The vaginal mucosa is squamous epithelium, vaginal mucous glands are absent, the normal vaginal flora is similar to that of postmenopausal women (eg, gram-positive cocci and anaerobic gram-negatives are more common), and the labia are thin with a thin hymen.

Pubertal and postpubertal adolescents and women have a more acidic vaginal pH, a stratified squamous vaginal mucosa, vaginal mucous glands, a normal vaginal flora dominated by lactobacilli, thick labia, and hypertrophied hymens and vaginal walls. Loss of vaginal lactobacilli appears to be the primary factor in the changes leading to bacterial vaginosis. Recurrences of vaginitis are associated with a failure to establish a healthy vaginal microflora dominated by lactobacilli.


Approximately 90% of all cases of vaginitis are thought to be attributable to 3 causes: bacterial vaginosis, vaginal candidiasis (or vulvovaginal candidiasis [VVC]), and Trichomonas vaginalis infection (trichomoniasis).

Bacterial vaginosis is the most common cause of vaginitis, accounting for 50% of cases. As previously mentioned, bacterial vaginosis is caused by an overgrowth of organisms such as Gardnerella vaginalis (a gram-variable coccobacillus), Mobiluncus species, Mycoplasma hominis, and Peptostreptococcus species. Risk factors include pregnancy, intrauterine device (IUD) use, and frequent douching.

Candida species (including C albicans, C tropicalis, and C glabrata) are airborne fungi that are natural inhabitants of the vagina in as many as 50% of women. Vaginal candidiasis is the second most common cause of vaginitis. In 85-90% of cases, it is caused by C albicans, and in 5-10%, it is caused by C glabrata or C parapsilosis. Risk factors include oral contraceptive use, IUD use, young age at first intercourse, increased frequency of intercourse, receptive cunnilingus, diabetes, HIV or other immunocompromised states, long-term antibiotic use, and pregnancy.

T vaginalis infection, the third most common cause of vaginitis, is caused by trichomonads. T vaginalis is an oval-shaped or fusiform-shaped flagellated protozoan that is 15 μm long (the size of a leukocyte). These organisms primarily infect vaginal epithelium; less commonly, they infect the endocervix, urethra, and Bartholin and Skene glands. Trichomonads are transmitted sexually and can be identified in as many as 80% of male partners of infected women. Risk factors include tobacco use, unprotected intercourse with multiple sexual partners, and the use of an IUD.

A study by Mercer et al suggested that symbionts, commensals, and concomitant infections impact the adaptive immune response to T vaginalis, finding that the presence of M hominis in vitro led to greater diversity in the inflammatory cytokine secretion response to T vaginalis.[2]

Noninfectious vaginitis is usually due to allergic reaction or irritation. Another common cause is atrophic vaginitis due to estrogen deficiency.

Common preventable causes of candidal vaginitis or bacterial vaginosis include damp or tight-fitting clothing, scented detergents and soaps, feminine sprays, and poor hygiene.

For related information, see the Women’s Sexual Health Resource Center.


Vaginitis is common in adult women and uncommon in prepubertal girls. Bacterial vaginosis accounts for 40-50% of vaginitis cases; vaginal candidiasis, 20-25%; and trichomoniasis, 15-20%.

In US women of childbearing age, bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection. An estimated 7.4 million new cases of bacterial vaginosis occur each year.[3] National data show that the prevalence is 29%. However, the rate varies in different subpopulations: it is 5-25% in college students and 12-61% in patients with STDs.[3] In the United States, as many as 16% of pregnant women have bacterial vaginosis.[3] A 50-60% prevalence is found in female prison inmates and commercial sex workers.

Eighty-five percent of those with bacterial vaginosis are asymptomatic. More than a billion dollars is estimated to be spent annually on both self-treatment and visits to a medical provider.

An estimated 3 million cases of trichomoniasis occur each year in the United States.[4] The worldwide prevalence of trichomoniasis is 174 million; these cases account for 10-25% of all vaginal infections.[3]

Age- and race-related demographics

All age groups are affected. The highest incidence is noted among young, sexually active women.

Vaginitis affects all races. The highest incidence of bacterial vaginosis is in blacks (23%), and the lowest is in Asians (6%). Prevalence increases with age among non-Hispanic black women. The incidence is 9% in whites and 16% in Hispanics.[4]


Overall, the prognosis is very good: most of those infected are cured. However, recurrent vaginal infections can lead to chronic irritation, excoriation, and scarring. These, in turn, can lead to sexual dysfunction. Psychosocial and emotional stresses are not uncommon.

Although treatment of bacterial vaginosis has not been documented to prevent HIV, bacterial vaginosis and sexually transmitted infections, including trichomoniasis, are considered to be risk factors for HIV. Chronic vaginal infection can facilitate the transmission of various STDs, including HIV.

Complications of bacterial vaginosis include endometritis and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Untreated bacterial vaginosis may result in complications (eg, vaginal wound infections) after gynecologic surgical procedures.

In pregnancy, Trichomonas infection and bacterial vaginosis are associated with an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm labor, premature rupture of membranes, preterm delivery, low birth weight, and postpartum endometritis.[5]

Patient Education

Safe sex and STD counseling may help decrease the rates of reinfection. Discuss further preventive efforts, including proper hygiene and toilet techniques, when it is appropriate to do so. Remind patients that douching can spread a vaginal or cervical infection into the uterus, increasing the likelihood of PID; douching can also be associated with endometritis. Educate patients regarding use of topical creams for treatment of vaginitis (eg, candidal vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis) as necessary.

For patient education resources, see Vaginal Yeast Infection, Vaginal Yeast Infection Treatment, and Candidiasis (Yeast Infection).




A carefully documented history is vital for establishing the diagnosis.[6] Adults and children must be questioned regarding specific aspects of the symptoms of vaginitis. Essential information to obtain during the history includes the onset of symptoms, previous occurrences, associated abdominal pain, trauma, and urinary or bowel symptoms.

Vaginal bleeding in prepubertal females is always abnormal and warrants a full investigation. In adults, as noted (see Etiology), the most common conditions resulting in symptoms of vaginitis include vaginal candidiasis, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis; accordingly, particular attention should be paid to symptoms suggesting these possible causes.

Patients with vaginitis almost always present with a chief complaint of abnormal vaginal discharge. Ascertain the following attributes of the discharge:

  • Quantity

  • Duration

  • Color

  • Consistency

  • Odor

Obtain a history of the following:

  • Previous similar episodes

  • Sexually transmitted infection

  • Sexual activities

  • Birth control method

  • Last menstrual period

  • Douching practice

  • Use of personal hygiene products

  • Antibiotic use

  • General medical history

  • Systemic symptoms (eg, lower abdominal pain, fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting)

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is asymptomatic in up to 50% of women. If a discharge is present, it is typically thin, homogeneous, malodorous, and grayish white or yellowish white in color. Vaginal pain or vulvar irritation is uncommon. Pruritus may occur.

Bacterial vaginosis is common in pregnant women and is associated with preterm birth. In pregnant women with symptomatic bacterial vaginosis who have a history of preterm birth, administration of treatment early in pregnancy has been shown to decrease the incidence of preterm birth.

Vaginal candidiasis

Candidiasis is a fungal infection common in women of childbearing age. Pruritus is the most common symptom. This is accompanied by a thick, odorless, white vaginal discharge (with an appearance similar to that of cottage cheese), which can be minimal. Usually, associated vulvar candidiasis is present, commonly with vulvar burning, dyspareunia, and vulvar dysuria (a burning sensation arising when urine comes into contact with vulvar skin).

Patients often have a history of recurrent yeast infection or recent antibiotic treatment. Symptoms of candidiasis often begin just before menses. Precipitating factors include immunosuppression, diabetes mellitus, pregnancy, and hormone replacement therapy. Candidiasis is usually not contracted from a sexual partner. About 75% of all women have at least 1 episode of candidiasis in their lifetime. Recurrent episodes may indicate underlying immunodeficiency or diabetes.


T vaginalis infection is the most common nonviral STD in the world. Many patients (20-50%) are asymptomatic. If discharge is present, it is usually copious and frothy and can be white, gray, yellow, or green (the yellow and green colors are due to the presence of white blood cells [WBCs]). Local pain and irritation are common. Dysuria (20%), pruritus (25%), and postcoital bleeding due to cervicitis are other possible symptoms. Symptoms often peak just after menses.

Trichomoniasis is associated with risk factors for other STDs; accordingly, a history of multiple sexual partners should be elicited. Infection during pregnancy has been associated with preterm deliveries and low-birth-weight infants.

Trichomoniasis is rare in prepubertal children. Sexual abuse should be suspected if symptoms are present. Symptoms include a copious frothy discharge, local pain, irritation, and, occasionally, pruritus.

Other conditions

In women with chronic vaginitis, atrophic vaginitis and hypoestrogenism must be considered. Elicit an accurate menstrual history, along with statuses such perimenopause, postmenopause, postpartum, and lactation. Ask about medications such as depot leuprolide (Lupron) and antiestrogen medications used for breast cancer.

Vulvovaginitis has multiple nonvenereal causes in prepubertal children; however, if a vaginal discharge suggests an STD, question all children (or their caretakers) regarding possible sexual abuse. Symptoms of vulvovaginitis in prepubertal girls generally include localized pain, dysuria, pruritus, erythema, and discharge.

Bacteria that can cause vulvovaginitis include streptococcal species (including group A streptococci), Escherichia coli, and Shigella sonnei. Symptoms (eg, pharyngitis and diarrhea) may result from infections in areas of the body other than the vagina. A Shigella infection may result in a bloody vaginal discharge without symptoms of diarrhea. A patient with group A streptococcal infection may present with itching or painful defecation. Purulent discharge may develop insidiously.

Viral infections may cause symptoms of vulvovaginitis. Elicit a history of recent viral infections, including varicella. Herpes simplex viruses (HSVs), particularly HSV-1 transmitted via autoinoculation from the oral mucosa, might be present; elicit a history of recurrent oral herpes or digital herpes in the caretaker of a child in diapers.

If candidal vulvovaginitis is considered (it is rare in healthy prepubertal girls), the history should include recent antibiotic use, possible diabetes mellitus, immunosuppression, and underlying skin disease. Ask about a family history of mucocutaneous candidiasis.

Consider helminthic infections (eg, Enterobius vermicularis infections) resulting in pruritus of the genital area. Ask about contact with pinworm-infected children, itching (particularly at night), and vaginal pain.

Ask questions to exclude the possibility of a foreign body in the vagina, chemical irritation (eg, recent bubble baths, washing hair with shampoo while bathing, douching, use of feminine hygiene sprays, colored or scented toilet papers, panty liners), latex, semen, mechanical irritation, and poor hygiene. Foreign bodies in the vagina result in a persistent, foul-smelling, serosanguineous discharge. Contact dermatitis from unusual exposures may occur; ask about this possibility and about bathing patterns.

Obtain a history of recent trauma to the vaginal area and a history of urination and defecation patterns and problems to exclude possible anatomic abnormalities (eg, rectovaginal fistula).

Lichen sclerosis et atrophicus may be seen in prepubertal children and in postmenopausal women. Symptoms of chronic fissures, pain, or pruritus are often present. Rectal fissures may lead to chronic constipation in children.

Physical Examination

The physical examination of pubertal and adult women should include a complete pelvic examination. The Tanner stage of development should be noted. The examination for prepubertal girls should be performed as described in Pediatrics, Child Sexual Abuse.

Bacterial vaginosis

Physical findings in bacterial vaginosis include a homogeneous, frothy vaginal discharge that is grayish-white to yellowish-white in color. The discharge appears adherent to the vaginal mucosa. Typically, no underlying erythema exists. As many as 50% of women with bacterial vaginosis are asymptomatic.

Bacterial vaginosis can be diagnosed if 3 of the following 4 Amsel criteria are present (see Workup):

  • Homogeneous, white, adherent discharge

  • Vaginal pH higher than 4.5

  • Amine (fishy) smell from vaginal discharge when potassium hydroxide (KOH) is added (whiff test)

  • Clue cells on wet mount

Vaginal candidiasis

Vaginal candidiasis may present with a well-demarcated erythema of the vulva with satellite lesions (discrete pustulopapular lesions) surrounding the redness. The vulva, vagina, and surrounding areas may be edematous and erythematous, possibly accompanied by excoriations and fissures. A thick, adherent, cottage cheese–like vaginal discharge may be seen. The cervix usually appears normal.


In trichomoniasis, the vulva may appear erythematous and edematous, with excoriation. Look for a copious, frothy, homogeneous vaginal discharge that can be white, gray, yellow, or green. Small punctate cervical and vaginal hemorrhages with ulcerations may be observed. So-called strawberry cervix, or colpitis macularis, is highly specific for Trichomonas infection, and 2-5% of patients will have this finding on examination.

Because diagnosis of Trichomonas infection on the basis of clinical signs and symptoms is unreliable, laboratory confirmation is mandatory.

Other conditions

Physical findings associated with cervicitis from STDs include excessive vaginal discharge, erythema, and edema of the cervix. Fever, cervical motion, or abdominal or adnexal tenderness may indicate upper genital tract infection (eg, cervicitis or PID).

Cervical ectopy or eversion may cause discharge with no apparent infectious cause. Physical findings associated with atrophy, dysplasia, and vulvar vestibulitis syndrome include localized atrophy or infection in skin and mucous membranes. In about 50% of all cases of mucopurulent discharge in women, the etiology is unknown.

Vaginal foreign bodies in adults include forgotten tampons; in children, pieces of toilet tissue typically are found. Findings of foul odor and irritation with a purulent discharge are common.

A patient with pinworms may present with few physical findings. Occasionally, there may be erythema and excoriations around the perianal area. In severe cases, eggs or dead female nematodes may be seen on examination of the anal area.

Perianal streptococcal dermatitis usually results in a beefy-red perineal area that is edematous and tender. Fissures, drainage, and hemorrhagic spotting may be present.


Bacterial vaginosis has been associated with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), endometritis, and vaginal cuff cellulitis when invasive procedures have been performed. Such procedures include endometrial biopsies, cesarean section, uterine curettage, and intrauterine device (IUD) placement.

During pregnancy, bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis are associated with an increased risk of premature rupture of membranes, preterm labor,[7] low birth weight, and preterm delivery.

Systemic disease resulting from the spread of gonorrhea may occur.



Diagnostic Considerations

In addition to the conditions listed in the differential diagnosis, other problems to be considered include the following:

  • Atrophic vaginitis

  • Cervical polyp

  • Contact dermatitis

  • Entamoeba histolytica infection

  • Excessive desquamation of normal vaginal epithelium

  • Large cervical ectropion

  • Lichen sclerosis

  • Lichen simplex chronicus

  • Vaginal adenosis

  • Vaginal cancer

  • Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia

  • Vaginal ulcers

  • Vaginitis emphysematosa (multiple gas-filled cysts on the vaginal and cervical mucosa)

Differential Diagnoses



Approach Considerations

The workup for patients with vaginitis depends on the risk factors for infection and the age of the patient. All women presenting with abnormal vaginal discharge should have a careful pelvic examination. Condition-specific tests (ie, colposcopy and cervical biopsies) are indicated for suspected cervical cancer.

Studies that may be performed in cases of suspected vaginitis include saline wet mount, the so-called whiff test, pH testing, culture, nucleic acid amplification testing, and a number of other second-line tests.

Saline Wet Mount

In a saline wet mount test, a drop of vaginal discharge is placed on a slide with 1-2 drops of 0.9% isotonic sodium chloride solution and examined under high power (×400).

This test is 60% sensitive and 98% specific for bacterial vaginosis. Clue cells are vaginal epithelial cells covered with many vaginal rods and cocci bacteria, creating a stippled or granular appearance. A decreased number of lactobacilli are observed, and white blood cells (WBCs) are absent.

In patients with vaginal candidiasis, the test reveals hyphae and budding yeast forms. In symptomatic women with trichomoniasis, saline wet mount is 80-90% sensitive for T vaginalis infection. Large numbers of WBCs (>10 per high power field [hpf]) and epithelial cells are observed.

Whiff Test

In the whiff test, vaginal discharge is placed on a slide with 10% potassium hydroxide (KOH) solution. A positive test result is the release of an amine (fishy) odor after the addition of KOH to the discharge. The odor is due to the release of amines such as putrescine, cadaverine, histamine, and trimethylamine.

Bacterial vaginosis is associated with an intense amine odor on this test; however, the whiff test is not highly sensitive or specific for diagnosing this condition. A negative whiff test result is 65%-85% sensitive for candidal infection; as many as 30% of symptomatic candidiasis cases show false-negative results. The whiff test may be positive with Trichomonas vaginitis.


Vaginal pH can be determined with litmus paper. A pH greater than 4.5 is often found in patients with Trichomonas infection or bacterial vaginosis (84-97% sensitivity, 57-78% specificity). Recent intercourse, douching, cervical mucus, and blood can lead to false-positive results.

  • Bacterial vaginosis - pH is 5.0-6.0

  • Vaginal candidiasis - pH is less than 4.5

  • T vaginalis infection - pH is 5.0-7.0


Cultures are of little use in diagnosing bacterial vaginosis and therefore are not generally indicated or recommended in this setting. Cultures with Nickerson or Sabouraud mediums should be performed in refractory or recurrent cases of vaginal candidiasis. Culture using Diamond medium or Trichosel broth is recommended for detection of trichomonads and should be used when infection is suspected but cannot be confirmed by other means. InPouch TV is 90-95% specific and 100% sensitive for culturing T vaginalis.

Gonorrhea usually causes a cervicitis, not a vaginitis, and may be asymptomatic. Symptomatic Neisseria gonorrhoeae infection usually results in a purulent discharge. Obtain cultures of the vagina (in prepubertal patients), cervix (in pubertal and adult patients), oral pharynx, and rectum if gonococcal vulvovaginitis is suspected. Obtain cultures by using a cotton-tipped swab and Thayer-Martin media on chocolate agar, incubated in a carbon dioxide–rich environment (see Pediatrics, Child Sexual Abuse).

Test for chlamydial vulvovaginitis via culture in prepubertal girls and in patients who show signs of abuse or sexual assault. Obtain rectal Chlamydia swabs (see Pediatrics, Child Sexual Abuse).

Nucleic Acid Amplification

The use of nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) has been implemented in many office and emergency settings. Tests such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can be performed by using swabs of the cervix or vagina or by collecting a urine sample. NAATs may be performed as a screen in pubertal and adult women. They may also be used for initial screening in prepubertal children, but in view of medicolegal concerns, confirmation testing should be ensured.[8]

DNA amplification assays of genital tract specimens are both sensitive and specific. First-void urine specimens for NAATs have also been shown to be sensitive and specific in females. They are less invasive than swabs, and with confirmation (eg, repeat testing with a different NAAT), urine NAATs may be used for the evaluation of chlamydial infection and gonorrhea in cases of suspected sexual abuse.

Although NAATs are generally performed to test for these common sexually transmitted diseases, their utilization for the diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis has also been studied, and they have been shown to be potentially more sensitive and specific than Gram staining and clinical diagnosis.[8, 9]

The Affirm DNA hybridization method is 80% sensitive for Trichomonas and 94% sensitive for bacterial vaginosis. Oligonucleotide probes detect high (> 107/mL) concentrations of Gardnerella vaginalis and can also can detect Candida. Antigen-detecting immunoassays, the Trichomonas Rapid Test (an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay [ELISA] strip test with 80% sensitivity), DNA probes, and PCR are useful for detecting trichomonads.

Staining (Giemsa, Papanicolaou, Schiff)

Gram stain is 89-97% sensitive and 79-85% specific for detecting bacterial vaginosis. On Gram stain, clue cells are identified as epithelial cells covered by small gram-negative rods.

Gram stain or culture on Nickerson media and Sabouraud agar may enhance diagnosis of vaginal candidiasis. The Papanicolaou test (Pap smear) may have frequent false-positive results for yeast.

The Papanicolaou test is not accurate in the diagnosis of Trichomonas infections: Pap smears may reveal trichomonads but have high false-positive and false-negative rates. T vaginalis may be identified with Giemsa staining of in vitro culture specimens (see the image below).

(A) Two trophozoites of Trichomonas vaginalis obta (A) Two trophozoites of Trichomonas vaginalis obtained from in vitro culture, stained with Giemsa. (B) Trophozoite of T vaginalis in vaginal smear, stained with Giemsa. Images courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other Tests

The latex agglutination test employs polyclonal antibodies reactive against multiple species of Candida.

Gas-liquid chromatography can be used to detect the succinate-to-lactate ratio in vaginal fluid to assist in the diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis. Succinate and lactate are metabolites produced by anaerobic gram-negative rods and lactobacilli, respectively.

A cross-sectional study that involved 1,740 patients with vaginitis symptoms by Gaydos et al reported that a vaginal swab molecular-based test collected by patients by themselves or by clinicians can accurately diagnose most common bacterial, fungal, and protozoan causes of vaginitis. The vaginal swab test sensitivity for bacterial vaginosis was 90.5% (95% confidence interval [CI] 88.3-92.2%) and specificity was 85.8% (95% CI 83.0-88.3%). For Candida, the test sensitivity was 90.9% (95% CI 88.1-93.1%) and specificity was 94.1% (95% CI 92.6-95.4%) and test sensitivity was 93.1% (95% CI 87.4-96.3%) and specificity was 99.3% (95% CI 98.7-99.6%) for trichomoniasis.[10]

Histologic Findings

T vaginalis infection can be confused with koilocytotic atypia, caused by the human papillomavirus, and may mimic findings of mild dysplasia.

Bacterial vaginosis may produce inflammation and atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS) on Papanicolaou tests. In addition, bacterial vaginosis may be linked with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).



Approach Considerations

Treatment of vaginitis may include sitz baths and instruction regarding proper toilet and hygiene techniques. Many women assume vaginal symptoms are the result of a sexually transmitted disease (STD), which is often not the case. A patient’s idea of vaginal normality may be inaccurate and result in increased or unnecessary treatment seeking. Also educate patients regarding the following:

  • Avoiding irritants in the vaginal area, such as perfumes, soaps, and panty liners, among others.
  • After swimming or exercise, which keeps the vaginal area moist, air-drying the area or changing the underwear.
  • Always cleaning the area from front to back.

Management considerations

Intravaginal imidazoles (see Pharmacologic Therapy) can be purchased over the counter and have proven efficacy for vaginal candidiasis. Patients may purchase and utilize these medications without a doctor’s advice or prescription and the choice of treatment can be based on personal preference since they appear to be equally effective. Vaginal anti-itch creams provide only symptomatic relief. Homeopathic treatments for vaginitis (boric acid, tea tree oil, live acidophilus, garlic) have not been well studied but may have some efficacy.[11, 12, 13]

If the patient shows no improvement, despite symptomatic or over-the-counter treatment, refer her for further workup of possible STDs and other infectious causes of vulvovaginitis.

When a patient is seen for suspected vaginitis in the emergency department (ED), there is usually no need for active treatment. However, prepubertal girls with vulvovaginitis caused by a foreign body in the vagina may require sedation for removal of the foreign body.

Treatment of vaginitis varies by cause and is directed at the relevant pathogen. Inpatient care usually is not indicated, unless serious pelvic infections arise or evidence of systemic infection in an immunocompromised host is present. Parenteral treatment of infectious causes of vaginitis is rarely indicated. Complicated cases of certain infections (eg, gonorrhea, chlamydial infection) may require parenteral treatment.

A German study has suggested that a 6-day vaginal application of dequalinium chloride (10 mg) is a safe and effective treatment option for mixed vaginal infections or those with an uncertain diagnosis.[14] The investigators noted this antimicrobial antiseptic agent has broad bactericidal and fungicidal activity with a low risk for antimicrobial resistance and posttreatment vaginal infections.[14]

Atrophic vaginitis can be treated with lubricants, estrogen vaginal cream, tablets, and rings, among others. A study by Shen et al indicated that low-dose estrogen therapy in atrophic vaginitis causes a rise in the proportion of Lactobacillus species in the vaginal microbiome while reducing the proportion of Gardnerella. In addition, serum estradiol levels rose four-fold in the study, vaginal pH was reduced, and the vaginal maturation index almost doubled.[15]

Vaginal suppositories containing human Lactobacillus strains are under investigation, as are changes in formulation strategies to improve pharmacologic delivery and treatment modalities.[16]


Refer patients with resistant infections or persistent symptoms of vulvovaginitis to a gynecologist. An infectious disease consultation may also be considered for resistant infections. Notification of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be warranted.

Other issues to consider

Patients who are immunocompromised, such as those with HIV infection, should be treated with the same regimens as other patients. Before initiating treatment with any drugs that should not be used during pregnancy, determine the possibility of pregnancy, test for pregnancy as appropriate, and maintain proper documentation. However, pregnancy should not delay treatment.

In cases of suspected sexual assault or child sexual abuse, proper documentation may assist with possible subsequent legal action.

Pharmacologic Therapy

Bacterial vaginosis

Recommended regimens for bacterial vaginosis include the following:

  • Metronidazole 500 mg orally twice a day for 7 days

  • Metronidazole gel 0.75%, 1 full applicator (5 g) intravaginally, once a day for 5 days 

  • Secnidazole 2 g orally as a single dose 

  • Clindamycin cream 2%, 1 full applicator (5 g) intravaginally at bedtime for 7 days

Alternative regimens include the following:

  • Clindamycin 300 mg orally twice a day for 7 days

  • Clindamycin ovules 100 mg intravaginally once at bed time for 3 days

Patients should be advised to avoid alcohol consumption during and 24 hours after treatment with metronidazole. Clindamycin cream is oil-based and might weaken latex condoms and diaphragms for 5 days after use. Clindamycin should not be used in the second half of pregnancy.

Routine follow-up visits are unnecessary. Routine treatment of sex partners is not recommended. The recurrence rate is 20-40% after 1 month. Twice weekly metronidazole gel for 6 months may reduce recurrences.

Regimens for pregnant women with bacterial vaginosis include the following:

  • Metronidazole 500 mg orally twice a day for 7 days

  • Metronidazole 250 mg orally 3 times a day for 7 day

  • Clindamycin 300 mg orally twice a day for 7 day

Pregnant women should have a follow-up visit 1 month after completion of treatment.

Treatment regimens in patients with HIV are the same as in patients without HIV, but bacterial vaginosis appears to be more persistent in women who are HIV positive.

Therapy is not recommended for male partners, but female partners of women with BV should be examined and treated.

Vaginal candidiasis

For the purposes of treatment, vaginal candidiasis, also referred to as vulvovaginosis candidiasis (VVC), may be broadly classified as either complicated or uncomplicated, as follows:

  • Uncomplicated - Sporadic or infrequent VVC; mild-to-moderate VVC likely to be caused by C albicans and occurring in nonimmunocompromised women

  • Complicated - Recurrent VVC; severe VVC; VVC caused by a species other than C albicans or occurring in immunocompromised women

Intravaginal creams/suppositories

Note that oil-based creams and suppositories might weaken latex condoms. 

Recommended regimens for intravaginal agents are as follows:

  • Butoconazole 2% cream 5 g intravaginally for 3 days

  • Butoconazole 2% cream 5 g (butoconazole 1 sustained release), single intravaginal application

  • Clotrimazole 1% cream 5 g intravaginally for 7-14 days

  • Clotrimazole 100 mg vaginal tablet for 7 days

  • Clotrimazole 100 mg vaginal tablet, 2 tablets for 3 days

  • Miconazole 2% cream 5 g intravaginally for 7 days

  • Miconazole 100 mg vaginal suppository, 1 suppository for 7 days

  • Miconazole 200 mg vaginal suppository, 1 suppository for 3 days

  • Miconazole 1200 mg vaginal suppository, 1 suppository for 1 day

  • Nystatin 100,000 unit vaginal tablet, 1 tablet for 14 days

  • Terconazole 80 mg vaginal suppository, 1 suppository for 3 days

Oral antifungals

Recommended regimens for oral agents are as follows:

  • Fluconazole 150 mg orally in a single dose 
  • Ibrexafungerp 300 mg orally; repeat once after 12 hours for a total dosage of 600 mg  

Patients are instructed to return only if symptoms persist or recur within 2 months of the onset of initial symptoms. Routine treatment of sex partners is not indicated.

Recommendations for complicated VVC are as follows:

  • Recurrent VVC (≥4 episodes of symptomatic VVC in 1 y) - 7-10 days of topical therapy or a 100 mg or 150 mg oral dose of fluconazole every third day for a total of 3 doses (days 1, 4, and 7); for maintenance, oral fluconazole 100 mg or 150 mg weekly for 6 months

  • Severe VVC - 7-14 days of topical azole therapy or 150 mg of oral fluconazole repeated in 72 hours; adjunctive use of nystatin cream or low-potency steroid cream may be beneficial

  • Non-albicans VVC - 7-14 days of nonfluconazole therapy; 600 mg of boric acid in a gelatin capsule vaginally twice daily for 14 days

  • VVC in compromised hosts - 7-14 days of topical therapy

  • VVC in pregnant patients - 7 days of topical agents; fluconazole is contraindicated


Recommended regimens for T vaginalis infection include the following:

  • Metronidazole 2 g orally in a single dose (or 500 mg orally twice a day for 7 days)

  • Tinidazole 2 g orally in a single dose

  • Secnidazole 2 g orally in a single dose

Metronidazole is the treatment of choice both for patients who are immunocompetent and for those who are immunocompromised.

Because trichomonads often infect the urethra and the Skene and Bartholin glands, metronidazole gel is considerably less efficacious than an oral preparation; therefore, use of the gel is not recommended. Sex partners of patients with T vaginalis infection should be treated, and intercourse should be avoided until both partners have been treated and are asymptomatic. Pregnant women with trichomoniasis may be treated with 2 g of metronidazole in a single dose.

Lactating women should withhold breastfeeding during treatment and for 12-24 hours after the last dose of metronidazole. For women taking tinidazole, breastfeeding should be interrupted during treatment and for 3 days after the last dose.

Topical treatment with nonoxynol-9 and povidone-iodine douches has been shown to be effective in treating T vaginalis infection in women unable to use metronidazole. Further studies are needed to confirm this preliminary finding.

A vaccine containing killed “aberrant lactobacilli” is available in Europe. This vaccine has not been evaluated in well-controlled, double-blind prospective trials.

Diet and Activity

Acidophilus supplements in the diet may help prevent vaginitis, especially if patients are taking antibiotics. In addition, an increase in the intake of garlic seems to help vaginitis symptoms and prevention.

Patients should be instructed to abstain from sexual activity and from douching until a diagnosis has been made.[17] Patients also should abstain from unprotected sexual activity (sexual activity without proper male condom use) until the infection has been treated.

Reducing simple carbohydrates, refined foods, and alcohol helps to reduce frequent/persistent yeast infection.


Although safe sexual practices have not extensively evaluated as means of preventing vaginitis, they may play a role in reducing the incidence of bacterial vaginosis and T vaginalis infections. Good hygiene, avoiding tight undergarments, wearing 100% cotton underwear, and keeping the area dry also may play a role in preventing candidal infections.

No studies show any benefit to douching as a treatment or prevention for vaginitis; douching may actually exacerbate symptoms. Tampon use does not seem to be associated with vaginitis.

Long-Term Monitoring

In asymptomatic women, follow-up care is not indicated. However, in women who are pregnant or have recurrent infections, a follow-up evaluation should be performed 1 month after completion of treatment. Techniques of proper genital hygiene should be recommended.

Refer for sexual abuse evaluation all children in whom vaginitis was caused by an STD (see Pediatrics, Child Sexual Abuse). Treat sexual partners of patients with identified STDs.

Consider treatment of partners in cases of trichomoniasis. In addition, consider treatment of partners in cases of bacterial vaginosis if chronic or recurrent infections develop.

In cases of recurrent or resistant vaginal candidiasis, yeast culture, glucose intolerance test, and HIV testing should be offered. In women with recurrent candidal vaginitis that requires longer fluconazole therapy, fluconazole resistance may be related to overexpression of PIr1 protein (Pir1p).[18, 19]



Medication Summary

The goals of pharmacotherapy in vaginitis are to reduce morbidity, prevent complications, and eradicate the infection. Drugs used for infectious causes of vaginitis may be applied topically or may require oral or parenteral administration.


Class Summary

Nitroimidazoles (eg, metronidazole, secnidazole) are highly effective for treating Trichomonas vaginalis infections and bacterial vaginosis. 5-nitroimidazoles enters the bacterial cell as an inactive prodrug where the nitro group is reduced by bacterial enzymes to radical anions. It is believed that these radical anions interfere with bacterial DNA synthesis of susceptible isolates. 

Metronidazole (Flagyl)

Metronidazole causes a chemical reduction reaction within anaerobic bacteria and sensitive protozoa. It is readily absorbed and permeates all tissues, including cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), breast milk, and alveolar bone. It is metabolized and excreted in the liver and kidneys. Treatment of partners increases cure rates.

Secnidazole (Solosec)

Indicated for bacterial vaginosis in adult women. Also indicated for trichomoniasis caused by Trichomonas vaginalis in adults. Administered as a one-time, single oral dose. 


Class Summary

The antifungal agents used to treat vaginitis are imidazole derivatives that exert a fungicidal effect by altering permeability of the fungal cell membrane. The mechanism of action also may involve alteration of RNA and DNA metabolism or an intracellular accumulation of peroxides toxic to fungal cell.

Intravaginal and topical therapy with a variety of antifungals (eg, clotrimazole, miconazole, terconazole, tioconazole) is highly effective. Many of these preparations are now available over the counter. Various 1-, 3-, and 7-day regimens may be used. Cure rates of 90% are reported with longer courses. 

The oral triterpenoid agent, ibrexafungerp, is the first non-azole antifungal approved for vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC) and the first drug approved in a new antifungal class for VVC in more than 20 years. 

Fluconazole (Diflucan)

Fluconazole is a synthetic PO antifungal agent (a broad-spectrum bistriazole) that selectively inhibits fungal cytochrome P-450 and sterol C-14 alpha-demethylation. Whereas ease of use should be considered, direct cost may be a limiting factor. PO antifungals should not be recommended in pregnancy. Current recommendations are for a 7-day course of antifungal topical therapy.

Ibrexafungerp (Brexafemme)

Inhibits glucan synthase, an enzyme involved in the formation of 1,3-beta-D-glucan, an essential component of the fungal cell wall. It is indicated for vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC) in adult and postmenarchal females.  

Miconazole vaginal (Monistat-7, Monistat-1)

Miconazole damages the fungal cell wall membrane by inhibiting biosynthesis of ergosterol. Membrane permeability is increased, causing nutrients to leak out, which results in fungal cell death. Metabolism occurs in the liver. Recurrent infections usually are treated with intravaginal regimens for 10-14 days, followed by maintenance oral treatment for 6 months. Dual Pak is not for use in children.

Clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin-3, Gyne-Lotrimin-7)

Clotrimazole is a broad-spectrum antifungal agent that inhibits yeast growth by altering cell membrane permeability, causing the death of fungal cells. The recommended duration of intravaginal therapy is generally 3-7 days.

Terconazole (Terazol 7, Terazol 3)

Terconazole damages the fungal cell wall membrane by inhibiting biosynthesis of ergosterol. Membrane permeability is increased, causing nutrients to leak out, which results in fungal cell death.

Tioconazole (Vagistat 1, 1-Day)

Tioconazole is a broad-spectrum antifungal agent that inhibits yeast growth by altering cell membrane permeability, causing the death of fungal cells.

Butoconazole (Gynazole-1)

Butoconazole is a broad-spectrum antifungal agent that inhibits yeast growth by altering cell membrane permeability, causing the death of fungal cells. It is effective only for vaginitis caused by candidal organisms.

Nystatin vaginal

Nystatin is a fungicidal and fungistatic antibiotic obtained from Streptomyces noursei. It is effective against various yeasts and yeastlike fungi. It changes the permeability of the fungal cell membrane after binding to cell membrane sterols, causing cellular contents to leak.

Ketoconazole (Nizoral)

Ketoconazole is an imidazole broad-spectrum antifungal agent. It inhibits synthesis of ergosterol, causing cellular components to leak, which results in fungal cell death. Ketoconazole is generally used as maintenance therapy for recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis


Class Summary

Empiric antimicrobial therapy must be comprehensive and should cover all likely pathogens in the context of the clinical setting.

The use of antibiotic combinations usually is recommended for the treatment of serious gram-negative bacillary infections. This approach ensures coverage for a broad range of organisms and polymicrobial infections, prevents emergence of bacterial subpopulations that may be resistant to one of the antibiotic components, and provides additive or synergistic effects. Once organisms and sensitivities are known, however, antibiotic monotherapy is recommended.

Clindamycin (Cleocin)

Clindamycin is a lincosamide used to treat serious skin and soft tissue staphylococcal infections. It is also effective against aerobic and anaerobic streptococci (except enterococci). Clindamycin inhibits bacterial growth, possibly by blocking dissociation of peptidyl tRNA from ribosomes, causing RNA-dependent protein synthesis to arrest. It is widely distributed in the body without penetrating the central nervous system (CNS). It is protein-bound and is excreted by the liver and kidneys.

Clindamycin has been used as an alternative to metronidazole in pregnancy; however, intravaginal use is not recommended for pregnant women, because it has been associated with an increased risk of preterm delivery. Treatment of bacterial vaginosis with oral clindamycin during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy has been shown to reduce the occurrence of preterm birth.

For recurrent infections, administer a trial of alternative regimens.

Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin that has a broad gram-negative spectrum, lower efficacy against gram-positive organisms, and higher efficacy against resistant organisms. It arrests bacterial cell wall synthesis and inhibits bacterial growth by binding to 1 or more of the penicillin-binding proteins.

Erythromycin (E.E.S., Erythrocin, Ery-Tab)

Erythromycin is indicated for the treatment of infections caused by susceptible strains, including Staphylococcus aureus. It is an alternative for the treatment of chlamydial infection in pregnancy.

Metronidazole (Flagyl, MetroGel-Vaginal, Vandazole)

Metronidazole is active against various anaerobic bacteria and protozoa. It appears to be absorbed into the cells; the intermediate metabolized compounds that are formed bind DNA and inhibit protein synthesis, causing cell death.

Metronidazole is indicated for the treatment of bacterial vaginosis (formerly referred to as Haemophilus vaginitis, Gardnerella vaginitis, nonspecific vaginitis, Corynebacterium vaginitis, or anaerobic vaginosis). Treatment of bacterial vaginosis with oral metronidazole during the second and third trimester of pregnancy does not reduce the occurrence of preterm delivery.

Metronidazole is highly effective in treating trichomoniasis with 1 dose. Topical metronidazole is not effective therapy for trichomoniasis. The numbers of T vaginalis cases with metronidazole resistance are increasing.

Cefixime (Suprax)

Cefixime is an oral third-generation cephalosporin indicated for management of infections caused by susceptible gram-positive cocci and gram-negative rods. It is used to treat gonorrhea, tonsillitis, and pharyngitis.

Doxycycline (Doryx, Monodox, Vibramycin)

Doxycycline inhibits protein synthesis and thus bacterial growth by binding with the 30S and, possibly, 50S ribosomal subunits of susceptible bacteria.

Azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax)

Azithromycin is used to treat mild-to-moderate infections caused by susceptible strains of microorganisms. It is indicated for chlamydial infections of the genital tract.


Class Summary

Hormones are indicated for management of atrophic vaginitis resulting from diminished levels of circulating estrogens. A relative lack of estrogen also predisposes the vagina and vulva to infection.

Estrogen (Premarin)

Estrogen is indicated for the treatment of atrophic vaginitis and atrophic urethritis associated with menopause. It should be reserved for women experiencing vaginal changes secondary to a deficiency of estrogen.


Questions & Answers


What is vaginitis?

What is the pathophysiology of vaginitis?

What causes vaginitis?

What is the prevalence of vaginitis?

Which age groups have the highest prevalence of vaginitis?

What are the racial predilections of vaginitis?

What is the prognosis of vaginitis?

What is included in patient education about vaginitis?


What is included in the clinical history to evaluate vaginitis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of bacterial vaginosis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of vaginal candidiasis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of trichomoniasis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of chronic vaginitis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of vulvovaginitis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of helminthic-caused vaginitis?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of a foreign body in the vagina?

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of lichen sclerosis et atrophicus?

How is the physical exam to evaluate vaginitis performed?

Which physical findings are characteristic of bacterial vaginosis?

Which physical findings are characteristic of vaginal candidiasis?

Which physical findings are characteristic of trichomoniasis?

Which physical findings are characteristic of cervicitis from STDs?

Which physical findings are characteristic of cervical ectopy or eversion?

Which physical findings are characteristic of a foreign body in the vagina?

Which physical findings are characteristic of pinworm-related vaginitis?

Which physical findings are characteristic of perianal streptococcal dermatitis?

What are the possible complications of vaginitis?


Which conditions are included in the differential diagnoses of vaginitis?

What are the differential diagnoses for Vaginitis?


What is included in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of a saline wet mount test in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of a whiff test in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of a vaginal pH test in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of cultures in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of a gram stain in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of latex agglutination test in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of gas-liquid chromatography in the workup of vaginitis?

What is the role of a vaginal swab molecular-based test in the workup of vaginitis?

Which histologic findings are characteristic of vaginitis?


How is vaginitis treated?

Which over the counter (OTC) medications are used in the treatment of vaginitis?

How is vaginitis treated in the emergency department (ED)?

When is inpatient treatment indicated for vaginitis?

What is the role of dequalinium chloride in the treatment of vaginitis?

How is atrophic vaginitis treated?

Which specialist consultations are beneficial to patients with vaginitis?

What are special considerations in the treatment of vaginitis?

How is bacterial vaginosis treated?

How is vaginal candidiasis treated?

How is trichomoniasis treated?

Which dietary and activity modifications are used in the treatment of vaginitis?

How is vaginitis prevented?

What is included in the long-term monitoring of vaginitis?


What is the role of medications in the treatment of vaginitis?

Which medications in the drug class Antibiotics are used in the treatment of Vaginitis?

Which medications in the drug class Antifungals are used in the treatment of Vaginitis?

Which medications in the drug class Nitroimidazoles are used in the treatment of Vaginitis?

Which medications in the drug class Hormones are used in the treatment of Vaginitis?