An itch in the nether regions can be distracting and embarrassing. Vaginal itching causes discomfort and sometimes even pain, and the cause can feel difficult to identify. Many factors can lead to this irritating symptom, some more serious than others.
For decades, douching was touted as a hygienic cleansing process after menstruation or intercourse. But the vagina is a self-cleaning organ that maintains a naturally acidic pH. Studies show that douches can make the vagina more alkaline, causing itching and irritation.
In women of childbearing age, any imbalance in the vagina can lead to inflammation of the vagina or vaginitis. In the case of bacterial vaginosis, certain species of bacteria, called anaerobes, outgrow the friendly bacteria, lactobacilli. The result is a foul, fishy odor and vaginal itching. Causes of the imbalance include sexually transmitted infections, deodorized soaps, and scented tampons.
Trichomoniasis is a common sexually transmitted disease caused by the Trichomonas vaginalis parasite. Women, especially older women, tend to be more susceptible. T. vaginalis infects the vulva, vagina, urethra, or cervix, and disrupts the environment of vaginal microorganisms. Two-thirds of infected people are asymptomatic. In others, it leads to genital itching, burning, and redness.
Infection-Related Cyclic Vulvovaginitis
Vaginal itching that occurs at the same time in the woman’s menstrual cycle each month is called cyclic vulvovaginitis. Candida albicans or thrush is a recurrent yeast infection that affects many women during their periods. It causes itchy labia that burn and sting, making sex painful. The skin can also become cracked and dry, increasing the risk of contracting other infections.
One type of hormone-related vulvovaginitis occurs during the second half of menstruation, right after ovulation. Estrogen levels suddenly drop, making the vagina drier than usual. On rare occasions, women experience autoimmune progesterone dermatitis: the body has an allergic-like reaction to the hormone, causing chronic vaginal itching and discharge.
Women in menopause can experience atrophic vaginitis, or vaginal atrophy, which involves thinning, dryness, and inflammation of the vaginal walls due to decreased estrogen. Symptoms include burning during urination and vaginal itching. Due to decreased lubrication, sex can be painful, and some women experience bleeding. The changing pH levels also increase the risk of infection.
Also called seminal plasma hypersensitivity, sperm allergy is an underreported reaction that some researchers believe may affect up to 10 percent of women. Between 10 and 30 minutes after having unprotected sex with their partners, these women experience itching and inflammation where the sperm made contact. Doctors are uncertain about the exact cause, but they suspect medication, food, or a prostate-specific antigen in the seminal fluid.
Gynecological cancers take tens of thousands of lives each year. Vaginal itching and burning, when combined with other symptoms, such as fatigue or back pain, could be warning signs. Some women diagnosed with cancer report that their itching felt deeper than normal and that it was impossible to find relief.
Lifestyle changes may address some causes of vaginal itching. Baking soda in the bath, for instance, kills Candida cells. Women with yeast infections can benefit from eating yogurt and honey, which encourage the growth of good bacteria. One study found that this may be more effective than some prescription antifungal creams.
When to See a Doctor
While many cases of vaginal itching resolve on their own or with home remedies, a few additional symptoms could be cause for concern. Women who notice vaginal discharge other than the reddish-brown that accompanies menstruation or outside of their cycle are encouraged to see a doctor. Additionally, if a woman experiences fever or pelvic pain along with itching, she should seek medical attention.