When people use the word vagina, they are often erroneously referring to the outer structures of the female genitalia. These external structures are collectively called the vulva and include the labia, clitoris, and vaginal and urethral openings. The vagina is the canal that extends between the uterus and outer genital structures. Vaginitis is inflammation of the vagina, and vulvovaginitis is inflammation of the vagina and vulva, but many people use these terms interchangeably.
Vaginitis is one of the most frequent reasons people with vaginas seek medical care. Anything that irritates the vagina can bring about vaginitis. Sexually transmitted infections, imbalance of normal microbes found inside the vagina, exposure to an irritating substance, or even hormonal changes may result in a diagnosis. With so many possible causes, contacting a healthcare provider is critical if you have vaginal irritation and do not know why. Vaginitis is not a significant health problem but can lead to complications if you forgo treatment.
Although there are various reasons you might end up with vaginitis, there are three main culprits responsible for 90% of cases. If you have vaginitis, you most likely have yeast, a non-sexually transmitted bacterial infection, or a one-celled protozoa called Trichomonas. While all three are common and treatable, trichomonas is the only one of the three infections transmitted through sexual contact. Each infection requires treatment to clear it from your body.
The various microorganisms that innocuously coexist on or in your body are called normal flora. It is advantageous for you to retain a healthy community of these microbes. Normal flora can aid digestion, synthesize vitamins, and reduce pathogenic infections by competing for space and nutrients. They cover your body from head to toe and create a dynamic ecosystem called the human microbiome. Within the human microbiome, different areas on our body act as individual habitats accommodating various species unique to each location.
Your vagina hosts an entire community of generally harmless and often beneficial microbes. This complex vaginal environment and all the organisms it houses is called the vaginal microbiome. In a healthy microbiome, each organism competes for space and nutrients, thus creating a delicate balance that ensures no individual organism takes over and converts from harmless to pathogenic. Lactobacilli bacteria of various species dominate most vaginal microbiomes.
If the microbial balance gets thrown off for any reason, a commensal or beneficial organism may become pathogenic and outcompete other organisms. Additionally, beneficial bacteria living within the microbiome can prevent unwelcome pathogens from taking hold because there is limited space for them to inhabit. If there is a reduction in normal vaginal bacteria, a pathogen may have access to the room and nutrients it needs to flourish, resulting in an infection.