Vulvovaginitis, sometimes referred to as vaginitis or vulvitis, is an inflammation or irritation of the vagina and/or vulva that can cause discharge, itching, and pain inside the vagina or outside the vagina on the vulva, including the labia, clitoris, and bladder and vaginal openings.
The word “vulvovaginitis” is a broad term used to describe various disorders that share these uncomfortable symptoms.
It’s one of the most common gynecological complaints presented by both children and adults.
Though there are many possible causes of vulvovaginitis, some cases can be managed or even treated at home.
In most cases, it’s important to speak to a medical professional to determine the cause and correct testing and treatment for your symptoms.
In this article, I’ll describe the symptoms and causes of vulvovaginitis as well as some home remedies and non-prescription options used in the prevention and treatment of vulvovaginitis.
Finally, I’ll describe when it’s important to contact your healthcare provider to determine which treatment course may be right for you.
Symptoms & Causes
Vulvovaginitis can cause discharge, itching, and pain inside the vagina or on the vulva, including the labia, clitoris, and bladder and vaginal openings.
Other symptoms of vulvovaginitis can include:
- A change in the regular color, odor, or amount of vaginal discharge
- Vaginal itching or irritation
- A burning sensation in the vulva or vagina
- Small cracks on the skin of the vulva
- Redness or swelling
- Blisters on the vulva
- Scaly, thick, whitish patches on the vulva
- Pain during intercourse (dyspareunia)
- Painful urination
- Light vaginal bleeding or spotting
There are multiple causes of vulvovaginitis, including:
- Yeast infections: Vaginal yeast infections, also called vulvovaginal candidiasis, occur when something disturbs the balance of naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in the vagina. In addition to vaginal itching, the most common symptoms of a yeast infection include vulvar and vaginal irritation, burning sensations (particularly during urination and sex), a red, swollen vulva, pain and soreness in the vaginal area, vaginal rash, and watery discharge or thick, white, odorless discharge with a cottage cheese-like appearance.
- Bacterial vaginosis: Bacterial vaginosis is a common cause of vulvovaginitis triggered by a change or imbalance of the normal bacteria found in the vagina, leading to an overgrowth of a bacteria called gardnerella vaginalis, which can cause allow other bacteria to grow—and cause symptoms. These symptoms can be similar to those of a yeast infection, which is why it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider to determine the exact cause of your vulvovaginitis.
- STIs: Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause vulvovaginitis, including trichomoniasis, chlamydia, genital warts, and genital herpes.
- Environmental causes: Irritants and chemicals found in some soaps, detergents, douches, sprays, and some contraceptives can trigger an allergic reaction, which can cause vulvovaginitis.
- Lifestyle factors: Wearing damp or tightfitting clothing, forgotten tampons, using an intrauterine device (IUD), uncontrolled diabetes, antibiotic or steroid use, and sexual activity can cause vulvovaginitis.
- Skin diseases: Some skin diseases, including eczema (atopic dermatitis), can cause redness and itching in the vagina or vulva. If you have red or scaly rashes or patches that accompany your itchiness, talk to your provider to determine if one of these skin conditions may be the cause.
- Injury: An injury to the vagina or vulva can also cause vulvovaginitis. Common injuries that can cause the symptoms of vulvovaginitis include bike or horseback riding.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes associated with menopause, pregnancy, and even birth control use can cause vulvovaginitis. Reduced estrogen levels after menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries can cause the vaginal lining to become thin, leading to irritation, itching, burning, and vaginal dryness. Some women also experience pain during sexual intercourse.
- Parasites: There are two parasitic infections which can also cause vulvovaginitis: Pubic lice and scabies.
- Vulvar cancer: Though rare, symptoms of vulvovaginitis may be a sign of vulvar cancer. Additional symptoms of vulvar cancer include bleeding on the vulva, changes in the color of the skin of your vulva, rashes or warts on your vulva, pain, especially during sex or urination, or persistent sores, lumps, or ulcers on your vulva. If you experience any of the listed symptoms, speak with a medical professional as soon as possible.
At-Home Remedies for Vulvovaginitis
It’s important to speak with your provider first to determine whether or not testing or prescription medication is needed to determine and treat the root cause of your vulvovaginitis.
Once the cause and correct course of treatment has been identified, there are a few things you can do at home to supplement your treatment and soothe symptoms:
- Use a cold compress: Apply a cold compress to the labial area (avoid anything scented and just use cool water).
- Take a sitz bath: Sit in a tub of plain (not soapy water), cool or lukewarm water, for 10-15 minutes several times per day. Afterwards, be sure to pat the vaginal area dry with a clean towel.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing and irritating chemicals: Avoid thong underwear and tight pants, and stick with loose cotton, breathable underwear and clothes when possible. Change out of wet and sweaty clothes right away. Avoid douching or anything internally in the vagina, and avoid any highly fragranced bath and shower products.
- Consider boric acid suppositories: Some studies have shown that using boric acid suppositories—which are available online or at health food stores—can be helpful in maintaining a healthy bacteria balance and vaginal pH.
- Try probiotics: Though there’s limited research on the effectiveness of probiotics in preventing and treating vulvovaginitis, emerging data suggests that some probiotics, specifically lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14, may be an effective treatment and preventive option for vulvovaginitis caused by yeast infections. Taking probiotic supplements or increasing your probiotic take by eating yogurt may help.
- Garlic supplements: Though there is limited evidence on the effect of garlic as a therapy for vulvovaginitis, one study from 2014 analyzed the effect of garlic supplements in patients with diagnosed bacterial vaginosis (BV) and found that the therapeutic effects were similar to that of metronidazole, but with fewer side effects and complications. But another study found that garlic tablets had no effect on women with vulvovaginitis caused by yeast infection. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness of garlic supplements as a therapy for BV and other types of vulvovaginitis.
- Try tea tree oil, carefully: Like garlic, there is limited evidence to support the use of tea tree oil as a treatment for vulvovaginitis. But one small study showed that using tea tree oil may help reduce the symptoms of BV. Keep in mind that tea tree oil is highly concentrated, and must be diluted before use. Ask your doctor or healthcare provider how best to use tea tree oil for your symptoms. Also, check to see if you’re allergic to the product before using it, as many people are allergic to tea tree oil.
- Don’t put foods or oils into your vagina: You may hear from friends or family who use at-home remedies that include putting apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, yogurt, or avocado oil into the vagina. Unfortunately, even though some of these products have antimicrobial or antifungal properties, there is no evidence showing that DIY treatments are effective at preventing or treating symptoms of vulvovaginitis. In addition to being unproven to help, these products are not clean or sterile, and could cause severe irritation or allergic reactions which could make your symptoms worse. Undiluted essential oils should never be applied to your skin, and no substances other than a prescribed medicine should ever be used inside the vagina.
Non-prescription Treatment Options
If this is your first time experiencing symptoms or if you’re unsure about the cause behind your symptoms, it’s best to seek your provider’s medical advice before trying any over-the-counter treatments.
Otherwise, these over-the-counter options may help:
- Antifungal OTC medications like miconazole (Monistat), fluconazole, and clotrimazole for vulvovaginitis caused by a yeast infection
- Boric acid suppositories
- Probiotics (specifically lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14)
There are some things you can do to help prevent vulvovaginitis. Some of the most effective preventive methods include:
- Avoiding scented lotions, soaps, sprays, and douches on your genital area
- Changing out of wet clothing right after swimming or exercising
- Wearing cotton underwear or underwear with a breathable, cotton lining
- Taking probiotics or eating foods with live cultures
- Using condoms during sexual intercourse
- Wiping front to back after bowel movements
- Consider using boric acid suppositories per package instructions to maintain a normal pH
- Urinate right after intercourse
- Don’t ever put food or essential oils into your vagina
When to Talk to a Doctor
If you experience persistent symptoms that don’t resolve on their own, or if you have additional symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional to determine the cause and correct course of treatment.
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K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Boric acid for recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis: the clinical evidence. (2011).
Comparing the Therapeutic Effects of Garlic Tablet and Oral Metronidazole on Bacterial Vaginosis: A Ranomized Controlled Clinical Trial. (2014).
In Vitro Susceptibilities of Lactobacilli and Organisms Associated with Bacterial Vaginosis to Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil. (1999).
The effects of oral garlic on vaginal candida colony counts: a randomised placebo controlled double-blind trial. (2013).
Warding Off Recurrent Yeast and Bacterial Vaginal Infections: Lactoferrin and Lactobacilli. (2020).