Living with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) typically means managing chronic inflammation that can cause joint pain and skin issues — but some people develop less common symptoms as well, which can be unexpected and jarring. One MyLupusTeam member asked, “I recently got diagnosed with lupus and ever since, I’ve noticed a white, lightly scented discharge from my vagina. Am I the only one experiencing this?”
No, they’re not alone — another member replied, “I’ve noticed this as well.”
If you’ve experienced vaginal symptoms since being diagnosed with lupus, read on to see whether there may be a connection.
One of the most common complications of SLE is susceptibility to infection. In fact, one review of people with SLE found that about 36 percent of participants who were on immunosuppressive therapy developed infections during the 10-year study period. The findings were published in the journal Medicine.
While the most common infection sites in people with lupus are the respiratory system, bloodstream, skin, and urinary system, some people with SLE develop bacterial infections of the vagina, known as bacterial vaginosis. As with other infections, lupus may be a factor that makes you more susceptible to vaginal infections.
Infections are caused by the invasion and growth of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. When disease-causing microbes known as pathogens invade the body, the immune system becomes activated to fight them. Some infections are caused by foreign microbes, and other infections can be caused by pathogens that live on or in the body.
Many microbes are naturally present on the body’s surfaces, including the skin, gut, linings of organs, and vaginal tract. The collection of these microbes is known as the microbiome. Microbiomes play an important role in maintaining health by allowing a wide range of types of microbes to exist together in a balance without causing harm. When this balance is disturbed, an overgrowth of pathogens can lead to infections.
The risk of developing infections, in general, is much higher in people with lupus. One study found that people with SLE, the most common type of lupus, develop infections two to six times more often than those who don’t have the condition.
People with SLE are at a higher risk of developing infections for two main reasons:
Multiple components of the immune system, including the production of cytokines and autoantibodies (infection-fighting proteins), are impaired in people with SLE, leaving them unable to fight off pathogens effectively. Also, SLE is often treated with strong immunosuppressive drugs, such as corticosteroids (prednisone) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan).
Immunosuppressants diminish the immune system’s activity that defeats pathogens, which makes infections more likely. “I’ve noticed bacterial vaginosis occurs frequently since starting my medicine,” one MyLupusTeam member noted.
In addition, researchers have found that the microbiomes in the gut, skin, and mouths of people with lupus differ from those of other individuals. In general, the microbiomes of people with SLE show fewer numbers of certain types of bacteria compared with the general population.
Researchers also have found that differences in the microbiome in people with lupus reflect the disease activity — more severe symptoms and flares occur when certain types of bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, are present at high levels.
Bacterial vaginosis is a common vaginal infection caused by an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria. In bacterial vaginosis, there is an imbalance between the “good” and “bad” bacteria that are normally present in the vagina. Lactobacillus, which is considered a good type of bacteria, is plentiful in healthy vaginas and prevents pathogenic bacteria from overgrowing.
When a shift in the balance between Lactobacillus and other types of bacteria results in an overabundance of pathogenic bacteria, vaginal infections can result. Bacterial vaginosis occurs more commonly during the childbearing years (ages 15 to 44). Although the cause of bacterial vaginosis remains unclear, risk factors include:
The main symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include:
The symptoms of bacterial vaginosis are similar to those of other vaginal infections, such as yeast infections. If you are experiencing these types of vaginal symptoms, see your health care provider to be tested and get the proper treatment for the condition you have. In most cases, bacterial vaginosis can be treated with antibiotics.
If left untreated, bacterial vaginosis can lead to complications, including:
Yeast infections in the mouth (oral thrush) and vagina (vaginal candidiasis), which are caused by an overgrowth of a Candida fungus, are also common in people with lupus. Vaginal yeast infections produce symptoms similar to those of bacterial vaginosis, including:
However, vaginal discharge from a yeast infection is usually odorless, while discharge from bacterial vaginosis often has a strong fishy smell.
Researchers are still figuring out if having lupus makes a person more likely to get bacterial vaginosis, but a small 2023 study suggests a link.
The study authors found that the vaginal microbiome in 30 people with SLE was clearly different from 30 people of a similar age and body mass index who didn’t have the condition. Compared to the other participants, those with SLE had a significantly lower number of Lactobacillus, the bacteria shown to maintain vaginal health. Also, the numbers of Streptococcus and Escherichia-Shigella — pathogenic bacteria shown to cause vaginitis, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections — were higher in people with SLE.
The reduced volume of Lactobacillus in the vaginal microbiome of people with SLE suggests a greater likelihood to develop infections such as bacterial vaginosis. However, more research is needed to confirm a connection.
A faulty immune system, use of strong immunosuppressants, and the resulting change in the vaginal microbiome’s balance appear to put people with lupus at a greater risk of bacterial vaginosis. If you have lupus and notice symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, contact your health care provider. They can review your medical history and discuss treatment options to help you manage both conditions and feel your best.
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Do you have lupus and are experiencing bacterial vaginosis? Have you and your doctor discussed a connection between the two conditions? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.