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Overview of Vaginitis


Oluwatosin Goje

, MD, MSCR, Cleveland Clinic, Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2023
Topic Resources

Vaginitis is infectious or noninfectious inflammation of the vaginal mucosa, sometimes with inflammation of the vulva. Symptoms include vaginal discharge, irritation, pruritus, and erythema. Diagnosis is by evaluation of vaginal secretions. Treatment is directed at the cause and at any severe symptoms.

Etiology of Vaginitis

The most common causes of vaginitis vary by patient age. Vulvitis and vulvovaginitis have some of the same causes.


In children, vaginitis usually involves infection with gastrointestinal tract flora (nonspecific vulvovaginitis). A common contributing factor in girls aged 2 to 6 years is poor perineal hygiene (eg, wiping from back to front after bowel movements; not washing hands after bowel movements; frequent touching of the perineum or vagina, particularly in response to pruritus).

Chemicals in bubble baths or soaps may cause vulvovaginal inflammation.

Occasionally, children place small objects into body cavities, including the vagina. Such foreign bodies (eg, tissue paper) may cause nonspecific vaginitis with a bloody discharge.

Sometimes childhood vulvovaginitis is due to infection with a specific pathogen (eg, streptococci, staphylococci, Candida species; occasionally, pinworm).

Women of reproductive age

In women of reproductive age, vaginitis is usually infectious. The most common types are

Normally in women of reproductive age, species is the predominant constituent of normal vaginal flora. Colonization by these bacteria maintains vaginal pH in the normal range (3.8 to 4.2), thereby preventing overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria. Also, high serum estrogen levels maintain vaginal epithelial thickness, bolstering local defenses.

Factors that predispose to overgrowth of bacterial vaginal pathogens include the following:

  • An alkaline vaginal pH due to menstrual blood, semen, or a decrease in lactobacilli

  • Poor hygiene

  • Douching

Vaginitis may result from foreign bodies (eg, forgotten tampons). Inflammatory vaginitis, which is noninfectious, is uncommon.

Women who are postmenopausal

In women who are postmenopausal, a marked decrease in estrogen usually causes thinning of the vaginal epithelium, increasing vulnerability to infection and inflammation. Some treatments (eg, oophorectomy, pelvic radiation, certain chemotherapy agents) result in ovarian insufficiency Primary Ovarian Insufficiency In primary ovarian insufficiency, ovaries do not regularly release eggs and do not produce enough sex hormones despite high levels of circulating gonadotropins (especially follicle-stimulating... read more with a decrease in serum estrogen. Decreased estrogen predisposes to inflammatory (particularly atrophic) vaginitis.

Hypoestrogenism can result in a more alkaline vaginal pH, which can predispose to overgrowth of vaginal pathogenic bacteria.

Poor hygiene (eg, in patients who are incontinent or bedbound) can lead to chronic vulvar inflammation due to chemical irritation from urine or feces or due to nonspecific infection.

Bacterial vaginosis and candidal vaginitis are uncommon among women who are postmenopausal but may occur in those with risk factors. Older women tend to have fewer sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including trichomonal vaginitis.

Women of all ages

Noninfectious vulvitis accounts for up to 30% of vulvovaginitis cases. It may result from hypersensitivity or irritant reactions to hygiene sprays or perfumes, menstrual pads, laundry soaps, bleaches, fabric softeners, fabric dyes, synthetic fibers, bathwater additives, toilet tissue, or, occasionally, spermicides, vaginal lubricants or creams, latex condoms, vaginal contraceptive rings, or diaphragms.

At any age, conditions that cause vaginal epithelial damage or increased exposure to pathogens predispose to vaginal or vulvar infection, including

  • Fistulas between the intestine and genital tract, which allow intestinal flora to seed the genital tract

  • Pelvic radiation or tumors, which break down tissue and thus compromise normal host defenses

Symptoms and Signs of Vaginitis

In children, normal discharge is common when estrogen levels are high—eg, during the first 2 weeks of life because maternal estrogen crosses the placenta during pregnancy (slight vaginal bleeding often occurs in infants as estrogen levels abruptly decrease because exposure to maternal estrogen ceases) and during the few months before menarche, when estrogen production increases.

Normal vaginal discharge is commonly milky white or mucoid, odorless, and nonirritating. The overall volume is small, but it can result in vaginal wetness that dampens underwear. Normal vaginal discharge may occur daily or intermittently. Many women have a clear, sticky discharge during ovulation, which is ovulatory cervical mucus.

Discharge due to vaginitis is accompanied by pruritus, erythema, and sometimes burning, pain, or mild bleeding. Volume may be small or may increase and even be copious. Pruritus may be severe, even interfering with sleep. Dysuria or dyspareunia may occur.

In atrophic vaginitis in postmenopausal women or other patients with inflammatory vaginitis, discharge is scant, dyspareunia is common, and vaginal tissue appears thin and dry.

Although symptoms vary among particular types of vaginitis, there is much overlap (see table ).


Vulvitis can cause erythema, pruritus, and sometimes tenderness and discharge from the vulva.

Diagnosis of Vaginitis

  • History and pelvic examination

  • Vaginal pH and saline and potassium hydroxide (KOH) wet mounts

  • Sometimes nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) or other molecular diagnostic tests or culture

Vaginitis is diagnosed using clinical criteria and in-office or laboratory testing.

A pelvic examination is performed using a water-lubricated speculum (gel lubricants can be bacteriostatic), and vaginal secretions are obtained with a swab.

A sample of vaginal discharge is tested with pH paper; pH is measured in 0.2 intervals from 4.0 to 6.0 (normal vaginal pH is 3.8 to 4.2). Then, secretions are placed on 2 slides:

  • Saline wet mount prepared with 0.9% sodium chloride

  • Potassium hydroxide (KOH) wet mount prepared with 10% potassium hydroxide

The saline wet mount is examined microscopically as soon as possible to detect trichomonads, which can become immotile and more difficult to recognize within minutes after slide preparation. The slide is also examined for clue cells and polymorphonuclear leukocytes.

The KOH wet mount is checked for a fishy odor (whiff test), which results from amines produced in trichomonal vaginitis or bacterial vaginosis. Potassium hydroxide is also used to test for Candida; KOH dissolves most cellular material except for yeast hyphae, making identification easier.

Clinical criteria and in-office testing are the most cost-effective way to diagnose bacterial vaginosis or vaginal candidiasis. For candidal infection, culture may be performed if microscopy is inconclusive or symptoms recur or persist after treatment; antimicrobial sensitivity should be tested to detect fluconazole-resistant Candida. Also, some molecular diagnostic tests are commercially available for clinical use (1–5 Diagnosis references Vaginitis is infectious or noninfectious inflammation of the vaginal mucosa, sometimes with inflammation of the vulva. Symptoms include vaginal discharge, irritation, pruritus, and erythema... read more Diagnosis references ).

Nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) is the preferred method to diagnose trichomonal vaginitis, but microscopy may be used. Culture is used when NAAT and microscopy are not available.

If women have bacterial vaginosis or trichomonal vaginitis (and thus are at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections), cervical tests for Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Chlamydia trachomatis, common causes of sexually transmitted pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), are done.

If contact irritant or allergic vulvitis is suspected, the patient should systematically eliminate potential irritants or allergens to identify the cause. Severe dermatitis or allergic reactions require evaluation by an allergist or dermatologist.

Other causes of discharge should be ruled out, including

In children, pelvic examination must be done by an experienced clinician. Speculum examination, if required, is usually done under anesthesia. If children have trichomonal vaginitis, evaluation for sexual abuse is required. Abuse should also be considered if they have unexplained vaginal discharge, which may be due to a sexually transmitted infection.

Diagnosis references

  • 1. Cartwright CP, Lembke BD, Ramachandran K, et al: Development and validation of a semiquantitative, multitarget PCR assay for diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis. J Clin Microbiol 50 (7):2321–2329, 2012. doi: 10.1128/JCM.00506-12

  • 2. Schwebke JR, Gaydos CA, Nyirjesy P, et al: Diagnostic performance of a molecular test versus clinician assessment of vaginitis. J Clin Microbiol 56 (6):e00252-18, 2018. doi: 10.1128/JCM.00252-18

  • 3. Gaydos CA, Beqaj S, Schwebke JR, et al: Clinical validation of a test for the diagnosis of vaginitis. Obstet Gynecol 130 (1):181–189, 2017. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000002090

  • 4. Schwebke J, Merriweather A, Massingale S, et al: Screening for Trichomonas vaginalis in a large high-risk population: Prevalence among men and women determined by nucleic acid amplification testing. Sex Transm Dis 45 (5):e23-e24, 2018. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000757

  • 5. Coleman JS, Gaydos CA: Molecular diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis: An update. J Clin Microbiol 56 (9):e00342–e00318, 2018. doi: 10.1128/JCM.00342-18

Treatment of Vaginitis

  • Treatment of cause

  • Symptomatic treatment

If a foreign body is present, it is removed.

For contact irritant or allergic vulvitis, any identified irritant or allergen should be avoided. In general, vaginal douching and unnecessary topical preparations (eg, feminine hygiene sprays) should be avoided.

If chronic vulvar inflammation is due to being bedbound or incontinent, vulvar hygiene and skin care measures may help. Prepubertal girls should be taught vulvar hygiene (eg, wiping front to back after bowel movements and voiding, washing hands, avoiding frequent touching of the vulvovaginal area).

Infectious, irritant, or allergic vulvovaginitis may cause significant discomfort until adequately treated. Intermittent use of ice packs or warm sitz baths with or without baking soda may reduce soreness and pruritus.

If symptoms of noninfectious conditions are moderate or severe or do not respond to other measures, topical corticosteroids (eg, topical 1% hydrocortisone twice a day as needed) can be applied to the vulva but not in the vagina. Oral antihistamines may be suggested to decrease pruritus and cause drowsiness, helping patients sleep.

Key Points

  • Common age-related causes of vaginitis include nonspecific (often hygiene-related) vaginitis and chemical irritation in children and older patients who are bedbound or incontinent; bacterial vaginosis and candidal and trichomonal vaginitis in women of reproductive age; and atrophic vaginitis in women who are postmenopausal.

  • Diagnose vaginitis based mainly on clinical findings, measurement of vaginal pH, and examination of saline and KOH wet mounts.

  • Treat infectious and other specific causes, treat symptoms, and discuss vulvar hygiene with patients, as appropriate.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
4-Way Saline, Adsorbonac, Altamist, Ayr Allergy & Sinus, Ayr Baby Saline, Ayr Saline Nasal, BD Posiflush Normal Saline, BD Posiflush Sterile Field Normal Saline, BD Posiflush SureScrub Normal Saline, Blairex Broncho Saline, Breathe Free Saline, Deep Sea , Entsol, HyperSal, Hyper-Sal, Hypertears, Little Remedies for Noses, Little Remedies Stuffy Nose, Monoject Sodium Chloride, Muro 128, NebuSal , Ocean, Ocean Complete, Ocean For Kids, Pediamist, PULMOSAL, Rhinaris, Rhinaris Lubricating, Saljet , Saljet Rinse, SaltAire, Sea Soft, Trichotine, Wound Wash, XYNASE, ZARBEE'S Soothing Saline Nasal Mist
A-Hydrocort, Ala-Cort, Ala-Scalp, Alkindi, Anucort-HC, Anumed-HC, Anusol HC, Aquaphor Children's Itch Relief, Aquaphor Itch Relief, Balneol for Her, Caldecort , Cetacort, Colocort , Cortaid, Cortaid Advanced, Cortaid Intensive Therapy, Cortaid Sensitive Skin, CortAlo, Cortef, Cortenema, Corticaine, Corticool, Cortifoam, Cortizone-10, Cortizone-10 Cooling Relief, Cortizone-10 External Itch Relief, Cortizone-10 Intensive Healing, Cortizone-10 Plus, Cortizone-10 Quick Shot, Cortizone-5 , Dermarest Dricort, Dermarest Eczema, Dermarest Itch Relief, Encort, First - Hydrocortisone, Gly-Cort , GRx HiCort, Hemmorex-HC, Hemorrhoidal-HC, Hemril , Hycort, Hydro Skin, Hydrocortisone in Absorbase, Hydrocortone, Hydroskin , Hydroxym, Hytone, Instacort, Lacticare HC, Locoid, Locoid Lipocream, MiCort-HC , Monistat Complete Care Instant Itch Relief Cream, Neosporin Eczema, NuCort , Nutracort, NuZon, Pandel, Penecort, Preparation H Hydrocortisone, Proctocort, Proctocream-HC, Procto-Kit, Procto-Med HC , Procto-Pak, Proctosert HC , Proctosol-HC, Proctozone-HC, Rectacort HC, Rectasol-HC, Rederm, Sarnol-HC, Scalacort, Scalpicin Anti-Itch, Solu-Cortef, Texacort, Tucks HC, Vagisil Anti-Itch, Walgreens Intensive Healing, Westcort
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