Vaginal pH Value for Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Vaginitis

1. Introduction

The vagina serves as an outside-communicating channel with the functions of draining menstruation and childbirth delivery. The vagina normally has unique flora that sustains the internal physical and chemical environment. The presence of normal flora relies on maintenance of various components of the ecosystem, which is in dynamic equilibrium [1]. Based on several published articles, the normal vaginal pH for women of childbearing age ranges from 3.8 to 5.0, which is moderately acidic [2,3]. The normal vagina is covered by a thin layer of transparent liquid, commonly known as vaginal fluid. Many factors may lead to changes or imbalances in the vaginal pH value, including vaginal infections, aging, sexual activity, and vaginal douching [4].

The common vaginal microbiome, the Lactobacilli species, can produce acidic pH and bacteriocins to kill other bacteria in the vagina. Lactobacilli can produce an acidic environment in the vagina, which is designed to protect women from sexually transmitted pathogens and opportunistic infections [5]. If these normal flora such as Lactobacilli are absent or significantly reduced, the vaginal ecosystem will become imbalanced, and other microorganism or bacteria inside vagina may become overgrown, leading to vaginitis. Moreover, Ravel et al. first identified the five community state types (CSTs) in 2011 [6], providing a powerful scheme to classify the status of the human vaginal microbial community (HVMC). These communities are divided into five groups: four groups are dominated by Lactobacillus iners, L. crispatus, L. gasseri, or L. jensenii, and the fifth has a lower proportion of lactic acid bacteria and a higher proportion of strictly anaerobic organisms.

Vaginitis has different types, including bacterial vaginosis (BV), vaginal candidiasis, trichomoniasis, and aerobic vaginitis [7]. This review focuses on the first three common types of vaginitis. Under the current standard, the diagnosis of vaginitis depends on criteria based on several clinical presentations. For example, the diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis has been based on Amsel Criteria in clinical [1] routine since 1983. Following the Amsel Criteria, bacterial vaginosis is diagnosed by the presence of three out of four conditions, including homogenously milky vaginal discharge, vaginal pH over 4.5, positive KOH whiff test, and 20% at least of clue cells under wet-mount test by microscope [8]. The Nugent Score is a scoring system that calculates the relative number of bacterial morphologies under Gram-stained vaginal discharge smears to diagnose bacterial vaginosis [9]. For both abovementioned diagnostic criteria, the vaginal fluid pH is a useful and unique marker for vaginitis. Abnormal pH values increase the possibility of vaginitis, and the measurement of vaginal pH has been used for initial screening [10]. From previous studies, a vaginal fluid pH value of 4-4.5 or less signifies the absence of vaginitis, whereas a pH value of more than 4.5 denotes vaginitis and bacterial vaginosis (BV) [11]. However, with a trichomonas vaginalis infection, the pH value may be increased to 6.5 or more [12].

There are various signs and symptoms of vaginitis that hint at different types of vaginitis with further corresponding treatments in clinical routine. In previous research, a combination test of vaginal fluid pH value with symptomology was shown to diagnostic sensitivity [13]. Table 1 and Table 2 demonstrate the associated symptoms, signs, risk factors, and treatments of different types of vaginitis [12,13,14,15,16,17]. From this article, we review the relationship among vaginitis, vaginal fluid pH, and the associated immune system. In the closing discussion, we also review the use of commercially available vaginal pH testing products. These vaginal fluid pH test products can serve as self-test tools used at home by patients themselves, especially those with suspected symptoms of vaginitis, such as unusual odor, itching, burning pain, or abnormal vaginal fluid. We hope that this study can increase women’s attention to vaginitis and encourage women to seek treatment as early as possible.

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