Written by Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG
If you are like most women, you have experienced a vaginal infection at some point. The symptoms are all too familiar. Vaginal discharge, itching, irritation, odor, and painful sex can be hallmark. Vaginal infections are no fun, and both summer and menopause can increase the risk of certain types of infections. Here’s what you need to know about vaginal infections during the summer, particularly if you’re transitioning through menopause.
Menopause and Vaginal Infections
It might surprise you to learn that hormone changes can increase the risk for both yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (BV) during menopause. In fact, variable estrogen levels during perimenopause and super low levels during menopause are often to blame for these specific vaginal infections.
Yeast infections are due to an overgrowth of fungus, while BV is caused by an imbalance of bacteria. In general, a healthy vaginal pH is acidic, ranging from 3.8-4.5. Lactobacilli, a type of good bacteria which naturally reside in the vagina, help to maintain this pH and a healthy microbiome. Lactobacilli produce lactic acid to accomplish this. With the hormone changes during menopause come less lactobacilli, resulting in pH alteration, and a greater risk for BV or vaginal yeast infections.
Are Vaginal Infections Worse During the Summertime?
It sure seems so. Yeast and bacteria thrive in warm moist dark environments, so it’s no wonder the summer months are primetime for vaginal infections and irritation. Typical summertime activities like swimming, sitting at the beach, and exercising outdoors can increase the risk for infection. Some of the more common summertime triggers include:
- Increased dietary sugar or alcohol intake
- Wearing wet bathing suits or work out clothing for prolonged periods of time
- Wearing synthetic undergarment material, including ill-fitting thong underwear
- Having sex. Studies have shown that people tend to have sex more often in the summer1, which can throw off vaginal pH and lead to infection(s).
For women experiencing menopause, the combination of hormonal shifts and summertime activities seem to be a perfect recipe for vaginal infections.
What Can Women Do to Prevent Vaginal Infections During Summer?
There are several things you can do to help manage vaginal infections and irritation, no matter the season. I recommend the following:
Prevention is key. It’s common for women to leave wet or damp bathing suits on for too long during the summer months, but this can create the perfect environment for yeast, especially when it’s warm out. Change out of your suit promptly after a swim to reduce your risk of infection. Also consider what you’re swimming in; chlorine from pool water or bacteria from lake and ocean water can disrupt your vaginal flora so be sure to take breaks from swimming to rinse off.
Consider investing in a good daily probiotic geared to towards supporting vaginal health. This is different from the standard gut probiotic because of the types of bacterial strains a vaginal probiotic contains. Both the lactobacillus strain type and amounts are important when choosing the right probiotic. For the science buffs and label readers out there, this would include lactobacilli strains of both acidophilus and rhamnoses, containing counts of at least 5 billion CFUs.
Maintain a balance. Boric acid vaginal suppositories may help too. The word “acid” sounds scary, yes, but this preventive measure has been available for years and is gaining mainstream popularity. Boric acid vaginal inserts, used regularly or episodically, can help to acidify the vagina to maintain a normal pH and lessen the risk of infection. One caveat; boric acid is never to be orally ingested. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before incorporating boric acid or any new over-the-counter treatments into your routine.
Modify diet choices. Be mindful of your sugar and alcohol intake. Ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin D too: it’s essential to normal immune function and may help stave off infections.
Sex matters. It is vital to manage vaginal dryness and painful sex, which can result from low estrogen levels during menopause. Dryness can lead to tiny micro abrasions during sex and might increase risk of infection. Regular use of both vaginal moisturizers, such as Revaree®, or a minimally absorbed vaginal estrogen if appropriate, are helpful to prevent dryness.
Consider condoms. If you’re prone to BV or have multiple sexual partners, regular condom use can play a role in prevention of this type of infection. Semen can alter the vagina’s natural pH, making you more susceptible to infections. Coupled with the hormonal changes experienced during menopause, it may make sense to use condoms to mitigate the risk of altering your vaginal pH.
Ditch the scented soaps. Hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and dye-free products are favored for use on delicate vaginal skin. This might include body washes, soaps, wipes and menstrual hygiene products. Douching is not recommended. Keep in mind, not all vaginal symptoms are due to infection but occasionally are due to chemical or environment exposure. Chlorinated pools and hot tubs are often an inciting factor in addition to scented products. Avoidance of these external irritants may be needed, at least temporarily until symptoms resolve.
When Should a Women Seek Medical Attention?
Vaginal Infections, whether experienced before, after, or during menopause, are often managed with over-the-counter remedies and common-sense interventions. Persistent, recurrent, or worsening symptoms of infection should be addressed by a healthcare professional.
Certain vaginal Infections are common, particularly during summertime and menopause. Being proactive to prevent and manage intimate care can be key to fun in the sun, infection-free!