Women Need Greater Awareness of Symptoms

A new Gallup survey dispels the myth that women are reluctant to discuss their most common health problem -- vaginal infections -- and instead implies that many women may not seek treatment because they are unaware of different symptoms and potential health risks.

According to the survey of 839 women nationwide, sponsored by the National Vaginitis Association, 78 percent said they are basically comfortable discussing with their physicians such symptoms of vaginal infections as odor, itching and increased vaginal discharge.

Yet few respondents said their physicians had described any symptoms of vaginal infections or discussed their risks. Only 16 percent of the total respondents said their doctors had discussed bacterial vaginosis (BV), the most common vaginal infection and one that has been associated with such serious risks as pelvic inflammatory disease (which can lead to infertility), cervicitis, urinary tract infection, post-operative infection, pregnancy complications, sexually transmitted disease and abnormal cytology.

In addition, only 13 percent of respondents said their doctors had described trichomoniasis, another potentially serious infection. In contrast, 39 percent reported their physicians had discussed the symptoms of yeast infection, a harmless but uncomfortable condition that can be treated with over-the-counter medications.

"This survey demonstrates that most women are not embarrassed about vaginal infections, but rather need to be educated on what to look for," said Dr. Anita Nelson, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. "Because most physicians do not test for vaginal infections during routine physical examinations unless a woman reports she is having a problem, women need to take the initiative in alerting their physicians to any unusual symptoms they experience."

Dr. Nelson noted that women may falsely assume any vaginal infection will automatically be discovered during their annual Pap smears. But this test is designed to detect cancer or precancer, not vaginal infections.

Any of the following outward symptoms are warning signs of BV: a milk-like vaginal discharge, foul or "fishy" odor, and sometimes itching. Yeast infections are characterized by itching and a white, curd-like discharge. Trichomoniasis is associated with a yellow or green frothy discharge and sometimes a foul odor or itching.

Because these symptoms are variable and can overlap, and may not be present at all times, women experiencing warning signs are urged to see a health care provider for proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. For a free educational booklet, called "Women's Guide to Vaginal Infections," write the National Vaginitis Association, 117 South Cook Street, Suite 315, Barrington, Illinois 60010.