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Spot the Difference: Vaginal Infection and Herpes

yeast bacteriaVaginal infections and genital herpes in women can present similar symptoms; thus, it may be difficult to tell them apart. The general manifestations can be confusing but the devil is in the details. It is important to distinguish both so that the proper medications and treatment can be administered. Know the difference. Vaginal infection and herpes distinction is essential knowledge for every woman for prompt diagnosis and intervention.


Vaginal Infection

Vaginal infections are commonly caused by yeast or bacteria and are very common among women.  Almost 3/4 of women experience vaginal yeast infection once in their lifetime. Other causes are bacteria and trichomoniasis which will be discussed later.

Inflammation of the vagina or vaginitis caused by infection produces symptoms such as itching, burning sensation, discharge and odor.  Diagnosing vaginal infection is hard because it has several causes.  Vaginal infection occurs when there is disruption of the balance of the ecosystem of the vagina which includes the good bacteria and hormones. Excessive antibiotic use and hormonal changes can disrupt this balance and make the vagina prone to infection. Some vaginal infections are transmitted sexually but yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis are not STDs.

Common causes of vaginal infections are discussed briefly below.

  • Bacterial Vaginosis - this is the most common cause of vaginal infection and accounts for 50% of cases. This is caused by the proliferation or overgrowth of the normal bacterial that is usually found in the vagina, particularly Gardnerella Vaginalis. Pregnant women, those who are using IUD and women who have multiple sexual partners are at risk of incurring this disease.bacteria vaginosis
  • Vaginal Yeast Infection - this is a fungal infection caused by Candida Albicans and is very common among women. This is not a sexually transmitted disease and is caused by prolonged antibiotic use, diabetes, frequent douching and birth control pills. Such factors allow the proliferation of fungus in the vagina because of the change in the pH and normal conditions of the epithelium which includes the bacterial flora.
  • Trichomoniasis - this is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause urethritis and vaginal infection in women. It is caused by amoeba trichomonas and the vagina is the primary site of infection in women.

Genital Herpes in Women

Yes, there is a difference. Vaginal infection and herpes are similar in some ways but are two very different disease entities; focusing on the symptoms can be confusing but a diagnosis can be readily identified in the causative agent and the lesions that are present. Genital herpes is an infectious sexually transmitted disease that is caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV).  Genital infections are commonly caused by the HSV-2 strain but HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes.

Genital herpes can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual intercourse. Blisters appear in the genital area approximately 7 days after exposure to an infected individual.  The lesions appear as multiple blisters in clusters that can develop to vesicles and ulcers that are painful. Such lesions are not common in vaginal infections caused by bacteria or yeast and are characteristic of genital herpes.  The vaginal discharge in herpes is usually thick, smelly and yellow compared to the clear and odorless discharge of yeast infection.

couples in bedThe first outbreak of genital herpes may cause a flu-like symptom such as fever, weakness and muscle pain. Inguinal lymph nodes may be swollen and tender which is not present in a simple vaginal infection.  Systemic signs and symptoms are characteristic of herpes infection rather than a vaginal inflammation.


It is important to know the difference. Vaginal infection and herpes may have similar symptoms but the clinical course is different. Itching, vaginal discharge and irritation may be common but appearance of painful or tender blisters in the vagina can lead one to suspect a herpes infection. Also important to consider are risk factors such as exposure to an infected person with herpes, multiple sexual partners and previous herpes infection.