This article was medically fact-checked by Women’s health expert and Gynaecologist Dr. Alyssa Dweck.
We’re going to start this out with a little story.
I have a friend of a friend that would get chronic yeast infections. Let’s call her Polly.
Polly would often get them after she had sex. Which was frequent. Her diet of coffee, cheese sticks, and cigarettes definitely didn’t help her system stay balanced either.
One time, thinking she had a yeast infection, she turned to her go-to treatments and creams.
None of them worked.
After going too long in vag-onizing discomfort, Polly finally went to the doctor.
After swabbing and testing, Polly’s doctor found out that she didn’t have a yeast infection this time after all.
She had a strep infection. In her vagina.
Similar to strep throat, but in her vagina!!!
The strain of strep causing strep throat (group A) and usually discussed vaginal strep (group B strep ) are not the same strain.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that upon hearing this, I burst into laughter. Given the context and absurdity of it, I couldn’t help but crack up.
After regaining my composure, I began to ask questions.
As a reproductive health writer and educator, I took it upon myself to dive in and find out exactly the how, what, and why of strep vaginas.
When in Labor Land
In my work as a birth doula, I’ve worked with many clients that have had Group B Strep, or GBS, bacteria present in their vagina. If they’re birthing in a hospital, that typically means administering a round of an antibiotic, usually Penicillin, every four or so hours.
Around 25% of women have GBS in their vagina , but it’s rare that this will cause complications with the pregnancy or baby, and even rarer when antibiotics are used.
Despite having this knowledge, it still came as a shock to me that someone could have a strep infection in their vagina. Logically of course, it makes total sense.
Understanding Strep Bacteria
If you’re familiar with the vaginal flora, and the microbiomes we have in our bodies, it probably comes at no surprise that we are hosts to a myriad of different kinds of bacteria, including streptococcus.
There are three different groups of strep bacteria: A, B, and C.
For the most part, people cohabitate peacefully with strep bacteria in their bodies. On occasion, it can get a little out of hand, and cause infections.
Many of us have had strep throat, which is usually caused by Group A. Group B is most dangerous for infants, although in adults it can cause skin, blood, and bone infections.
Group C infections are rare, as it’s typically transmitted from contact with animals like cows or horses.
How Can it Affect Your Vagina?
For prepubescent girls, Group A strep is a recognized cause of vaginitis. Now researchers are finding that it can also affect adults with vaginas. Because of a lack of research and understanding, these women are often misdiagnosed as having vulvovaginal candidosis. A different kind of bacterial imbalance.
Bacteria are friendly and like to get around. If someone in your household, especially someone you’re intimate with is a carrier of Group A strep, it’s possible they could transmit it to you.
Given the high prevalence of Group B strep, it’s not usually attributed to causing infections. Even when it is present in women with vulvovaginal symptoms. Doctors are even more cautious about diagnosing on the basis of Group B strep because levels of it can vary through a woman’s menstrual cycle, and other hormonal shifts like pregnancy.
Vaginal strep infections are rare. Given symptoms like abnormal discharge, swelling, and redness, that are similar to other vaginal infections, it can make it almost impossible to diagnose strep vagina without a bacterial culture. Even with a culture, strep isn’t usually the first thing a doctor will test for.
Meaning like Polly, people often won’t find out until initial treatments don’t work, and symptoms worsen.
Technically called Strep A or B Vaginitis, this is not a sexually transmitted disease. However, in a small sample, researchers found that sexual contact may increase transmission of GBS amongst heterosexual couples.
Who Gets Strep Vagina?
The risk of GBS infections increases with age. As with any infection, you are also at greater risk if you are immuno-compromised, or don’t have the healthiest lifestyle. Like our friend Polly.
Colonization of Group A strep, is more common in people with other skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or open sores. Strep bacteria can also travel to the urethra, and cause painful urinary tract infections.
How It’s Treated
Most likely with antibiotics. Even if symptoms start out on the mild side, strep infections can be serious, and potentially life threatening if they spread to the blood and other areas of the body.
The kind of antibiotic prescribed will depend on what type of strep is present, and other health factors your doctor may take into account.
Oh and about Polly?
Thanks for asking.
She went on antibiotics, and she and her vagina are back to their normal, healthy selves.
Facts checked by:
Dr. Alyssa Dweck
Alyssa Dweck MS, MD, FACOG is a practicing gynecologist in Westchester County, New York. She provides care to women of all ages; she has delivered thousands of babies. She is proficient in minimally invasive surgery and has special interest and expertise in female sexual health and medical sex therapy. She is top doctor in New York Magazine and Westchester Magazine. Dr. Dweck has co-authored three books including the most recent release The Complete A to Z For Your V.
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Natasha’s passion for reproductive health began at age fourteen, when she was present for the birth of her youngest sister. Her incredible experiences as a birth doula, has given her hands on insight into the magical realm of birth, pregnancy, and all things in between. Her role as a birth worker, is her way of serving as an activist. She uses writing as a key educational tool for creating change in how we view reproductive health as a whole.