New research shows vaginal bacteria vary among healthy women, need customized treatment

July 11, 2007

Silence may impact women’s health since few women or their doctors are comfortable talking about vaginal health openly. This hesitation, combined with a limited understanding of the differences between women, can lead to misinformation, misdiagnosis and potentially ineffective treatments. Research at the University of Idaho is helping to increase understanding about normal vaginal biology so that physicians can better identify conditions that make women prone to infections and other diseases, and avoid the development of health problems.

“Women suffer from insidious health problems, including bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections, and those problems send them in droves to seek medical treatment,” said Larry Forney, a professor of biology at the University of Idaho. “Unfortunately, prescribed treatments aren’t necessarily effective because doctors don’t understand distinctive differences in the microbial composition of the vagina among women.”

Forney’s interdisciplinary team of researchers found that the microbial ecosystem of the human vagina varies greatly among women. Those differences can lead to conditions that, if not diagnosed and treated correctly, may leave some women susceptible to a range of infections, including sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.

His research team compared the type of vaginal bacteria in a representative group of Caucasian and black women in North America. Three major findings emerged from the study: there are at least eight kinds of normal vaginal bacterial communities, each community is different, and, among the eight kinds of communities, some bacterial communities are unique to one or the other racial group.

“Understanding the differences between these normal vaginal communities is the key to developing effective treatment and keeping women healthy,” Forney said. “For example, with this new insight into the vaginal ecosystem, we will be able to better understand a woman’s risk to disease and individual health care needs, and assist doctors and women to make more informed decisions about health issues and treatment plans.”

“It’s important for us to understand that the bacterial landscape in vaginas is different in different women and that’s normal,” Forney said. “Every speck of the human body has bacteria and those bacteria, including bacteria in the vagina, play a role in maintaining the body’s health.”

A healthy vagina is populated with lactic acid-producing bacteria, explained Forney. The environment maintains a low pH balance that inhibits the growth of pathogens. “The vagina is elegant in its simplicity,” he said. “A healthy vagina maintains itself and is able to self-correct when minor imbalances occur.”

When conditions in the vagina change the pH balance dramatically, harmful bacteria can invade and cause infections. When the pH is imbalanced, a condition known as bacterial vaginosis can develop; the condition is not well understood and is marked by several indicators including elevated pH levels and vaginal discharge. If left untreated or if treatment fails, the condition can predispose a woman to harm from sexually transmitted disease, including HIV.

Forney stressed the importance of the research team’s findings because they may:

-- shed light on why some women have recurrent vaginal yeast infections, while others have never had one
-- partly explain differences in susceptibility to infection in the two racial groups, based upon the relative frequency of different kinds of bacterial communities in women.

Forney also said differences in the kinds of bacteria normally present in the vagina might mean that vaginal odor is normal for some women and not an indication of an underlying health problem.

The research has personal meaning for Forney as well. “I am vitally concerned about women’s health issues because I’ve got two daughters and I know that these issues will affect them.”

Source: University of Idaho

Explore further: Women can breathe sigh of relief when using vaginal estrogen to treat menopause symptoms

Related Stories

Women can breathe sigh of relief when using vaginal estrogen to treat menopause symptoms

October 11, 2017
News flash... hot flashes aren't the only bothersome symptom of the menopause transition. Many postmenopausal women also experience sexual dysfunction and urinary problems that don't require estrogen pills but, rather, can ...

Painful sex and bladder problems take toll on women's libido during menopause

October 11, 2017
As women age, sexual activity typically declines. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are no longer interested in sex. The problem for many is physical. A new study demonstrates the impact on sexual activity of postmenopausal ...

Study shows epidurals don't slow labor

October 10, 2017
Epidural analgesia - a mix of anesthetics and narcotics delivered by catheter placed close to the nerves of the spine - is the most effective method of labor pain relief. In widespread use since the 1970s, epidurals have ...

How serious is postmenopausal bleeding?

October 11, 2017
If you're postmenopausal, you shouldn't be bleeding. The very definition of menopause is having gone more than 12 months without a period. So if you're still bleeding, something is wrong. Determining the seriousness of the ...

Progesterone does not prevent preterm birth or complications, says study

October 3, 2017
An increasingly popular hormonal "treatment" for pregnant women with a history of preterm birth does not work, a major new international study shows.

Women in preterm labour to be offered antibiotics to combat Group B Strep

September 18, 2017
Women who go into labour before 37 weeks of pregnancy should be offered antibiotics to prevent a possible transmission of Group B Streptococcal (GBS), according to updated guidance published by the Royal College of Obstetricians ...

Recommended for you

Experts devise plan to slash unnecessary medical testing

October 17, 2017
Researchers at top hospitals in the U.S. and Canada have developed an ambitious plan to eliminate unnecessary medical testing, with the goal of reducing medical bills while improving patient outcomes, safety and satisfaction.

New study: Nearly half of US medical care comes from emergency rooms

October 17, 2017
Nearly half of all US medical care is delivered by emergency departments, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). And in recent years, the percentage of care delivered ...

No evidence that widely marketed technique to treat leaky bladder/prolapse works

October 16, 2017
There is no scientific evidence that a workout widely marketed to manage the symptoms of a leaky bladder and/or womb prolapse actually works, conclude experts in an editorial published online in the British Journal of Sports ...

Ten pence restaurant chain levy on sugary drinks linked to fall in sales

October 16, 2017
The introduction of a 10 pence levy on sugar sweetened drinks across the 'Jamie's Italian' chain of restaurants in the UK was associated with a relatively large fall in sales of these beverages of between 9 and 11 per cent, ...

New exercises help athletes manage dangerous breathing disorder

October 16, 2017
A novel set of breathing techniques developed at National Jewish Health help athletes overcome vocal cord dysfunction and improve performance during high-intensity exercise. Vocal cord dysfunction, now also referred to as ...

Learning and staying in shape key to longer lifespan, study finds

October 13, 2017
People who are overweight cut their life expectancy by two months for every extra kilogramme of weight they carry, research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.