What Are Yeast Infections, Toxic Shock Syndrome, and Trichomoniasis?

A Woman’s Vagina

Female reproductive system
Female reproductive system
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A woman’s vagina is a reproductive organ that plays a major role in having a baby, menstruation, and sexual intercourse. It is also a complex and sensitive part of the body. As you probably know, the vagina is the opening that is located between the urethra (urine canal) and the anus. The opening is called an orifice, as are other openings in your body such as your mouth and nostrils. Women tend to be less familiar with their sexual organs than men because it is harder to see them. If you are a woman, inspecting your vulva (external genital organs) by putting a mirror between your legs and looking is a good idea. That way, you can be familiar with how your vagina typically looks and feels. If you feel any itching, pain, or discomfort, you can inspect your vulva for signs of an infection. However, if you are sexually active, get regular checkups because not all infections produce symptoms or changes in the way your vulva looks.

A Delicate Balance

Vaginal infections occur in women of all ages. To stay healthy, a vagina must maintain a balance between the healthy bacteria that are normally found there and the hormonal changes that take place in the rest of a woman’s body.

The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. This means it cleans itself naturally, without assistance. Although some women choose to wash their vaginas with a douche, or jet of water containing a cleansing agent, this isn’t necessary and can often rid the vagina of healthy bacteria. The walls of the vagina are constantly producing secretions of natural liquids that provide necessary moisture, keep the vagina clean, and maintain the right level of natural acidity that helps protect against infection.

Problems occur when this balance in the vaginal environment is disrupted. Such changes can be caused by many factors, including:

  • Antibiotic or hormonal treatments

  • Birth control devices

  • Douches

  • Some tampons

  • Vaginal medications

  • Sexual contact

  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

  • Stress

  • Smoking

Vaginal infections are the most common type of medical problem that affect women’s reproductive organs. Some of these infections can be itchy and painful. When discovered early, they can easily be treated and cured. Two vaginal infections, in particular, are especially common: vaginal yeast infections and trichomoniasis. Trichomoniasis, which is considered an STD, can affect men as well. However, only women usually exhibit the symptoms. Another infection, toxic shock syndrome (TSS), affects women, men, and children. Although quite rare, it is much more serious than the other two infections.

Vaginal Yeast Infections

Vaginal yeast infections are extremely common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), close to 80 percent of all women will experience a vaginal yeast infection at least once in their lives. Younger women, in particular, experience yeast infections. Several factors may contribute to this such as: antibiotics prescribed for acne, birth control methods, pregnancy, menstruation, and tight underwear. By the time they have turned twenty-five, an estimated 50 percent of American college students have had at least one yeast infection.

When you hear the word “yeast,” you probably think of the slightly sweet-smelling powder that is used to make bread rise. This is the most popular variety of yeast, which is actually a fungus. Other species of yeast also live in our bodies. One of the most common is Candida. Around 80 percent of yeast infections, or Candidiasis, are caused by a certain type of Candida known as Candida albicans. Other, less common varieties of Candida are responsible for the other 20 percent of yeast infections.

When your vagina is healthy with all its bacteria living in balance, Candida doesn’t create trouble. Yet changes to this delicate environment—brought about by anything from stress, to injury, to sexual activity—can cause the yeast to multiply. Yeast receives nourishment from glucose, which is a form of sugar produced by your body. Any occurrence that increases your blood sugar, or changes the hormonal balance that regulates blood sugar, can make yeast grow out of control. Yeast infections can make you feel itchy and uncomfortable. The good news is that they are usually easy to treat.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis, more popularly known as “trich,” is a typical vaginal infection. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) estimates that around five million new cases occur each year in the United States, and 170 million cases occur worldwide. Trichomoniasis is considered an STD. It is caused by a tiny, single-celled parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis, which travels from one person’s sex organs to another during sexual intercourse or through exchange of sexual fluids.

Although it affects both women and men, trich’s symptoms are more common in women. They usually appear in the vagina, whereas in men the most common site of infection is the urethra (urine canal). When a woman’s vaginal environment is out of balance, she is vulnerable to infection. While women can acquire trich from sexual contact with women and men, women usually only infect men. Trichomoniasis and its main symptoms—irritation, itching (worse for women than men), and a strong smell—are unpleasant, but easily curable.

Toxic Shock Syndrome

Unlike yeast infections and trichomoniasis, toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a very rare infection of the vagina, but it is also very serious. TSS is a systemic illness, which means that it affects the entire body’s system. If unchecked, it can attack internal organs such as the kidneys and liver, causing them to go into shock and stop functioning.

Two types of bacteria cause toxic shock syndrome: Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. They frequently live on the skin of 1 in every 3 healthy people, and in the nose, armpits, crotch, and vagina. TSS is more often caused by Staphylococcus aureus. When gazed at under a microscope, this bacteria look like a tiny cluster of golden grapes. Their distinctive color account for its nickname “golden staph.” (Aureus is the Latin word for “gold.”)

Certain strains of these bacteria can sometimes produce toxins. A toxin is a protein that is poisonous. Every year in the United States, some 500,000 people contract a staphylococcal infection. If it occurs on the surface of the skin, it can be quite mild, producing nothing more than a pimple or boil. Most people’s bodies have a natural defense system, or antibodies, which fights these toxins. However, a few people don’t have these antibodies. If the bacteria somehow enter the body through a wound or orifice, enter the bloodstream, and come into contact with internal organs, they can cause life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia and TSS.

In many cases of TSS, the bacteria infect a woman’s vagina. In fact, when many people think of TSS, they think of tampons. In the late 1970s, when the first cases of the illness began to be known, TSS was linked to the use of super-absorbent tampons. After research led to better tampons and improved feminine hygiene habits (such as changing tampons more frequently), the number of TSS cases decreased enormously. Currently, less than a dozen cases are reported each year to the CDC, and only around 50 percent of all TSS cases are vaginal ones linked to menstruation. Of these cases of menstrual TSS, most are linked to tampon use, but a few have been linked to use of two birth control methods: the diaphragm and the contraceptive sponge, both of which are inserted into the vagina. While TSS is generally associated with women, men and children can get it as well. In the case of men and children, toxins usually enter the body via open wounds, burns, insect bites, or following surgery.