Few women get through life without experiencing at least one episode of vaginal burning. Infections of various types, including some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), account for the majority of cases. Noninfectious conditions can also lead to this uncomfortable symptom. Pinpointing the underlying cause of vaginal burning sets the stage for effective treatment so you can get back to normal as soon as possible.
A yeast infection, known medically as vulvovaginal candidiasis, is a leading cause of vaginal burning -- particularly among women of childbearing age. Other common symptoms with this infection include thick, white discharge, and vulvar itchiness, soreness and swelling. Most yeast infections clear with topical, over-the-counter antifungal medication. Oral prescription medication may be needed for a treatment-resistant or recurrent yeast infection.
The vagina normally hosts a variety of bacteria with a predominance of lactobacilli. With bacterial vaginosis (BV), accelerated growth of other types of bacteria overtake the lactobacilli leading to an unhealthy mix of vaginal bacteria. Typical BV symptoms include increased watery vaginal discharge and an unusual vaginal odor that some describe as fishy. Vaginal burning may occur due to genital irritation caused by increased wetness of the area. BV is treated with oral antibiotics.
Trichomoniasis, better known as trich, is the most common sexually-transmitted vaginal infection associated with vaginal burning. It is caused by a single-celled parasite. Symptoms are similar to those of BV with the addition of itchiness, which can be intense. Trich is treated with an oral antibiotic.
Vaginal burning, itchiness and genital sores are typical symptoms during an outbreak of genital herpes. Although there is no cure for genital herpes, oral antiviral medications can suppress and/or shorten outbreaks.
Vulvovaginal burning sometimes occurs -- although relatively uncommonly -- with other STDs, including genital warts, gonorrhea and chlamydia. The latter two infections are treated with antibiotics. Genital warts, which are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), can usually be treated with one or more topical therapies.
Noninfectious vaginitis refers to vaginal irritation that is not caused by an infection. This irritation can lead to vaginal burning, soreness and possibly itchiness. Common culprits include irritating chemicals in soap, feminine hygiene products, laundry detergent and fabric softener. Urine leakage can also lead to noninfectious vaginitis. In post-menopausal women, vaginal thinning and dryness can lead to irritation and burning pain. Some dermatologic and medical conditions can might cause vaginal irritation and burning, although these are relatively uncommon causes of this symptom. Examples include:
- Vulvar lichen sclerosis, planus and simplex
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Lupus erythematosus
- Behcet disease
- Vulvar cancer
Warnings and Precautions
Many women assume they have a yeast infection when vaginal burning occurs, but this is just one of many possible causes. Therefore, it's best to see your doctor if you develop this symptom to ensure an accurate diagnosis and optimal treatment. This is particularly important if you are pregnant, or have diabetes or HIV. Seek medical care as soon as possible if you have other signs or symptoms, such as fever, rash, or abdominal, pelvic, back or flank pain.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.