Bacterial vaginosis is an infection of the vagina which many women experience while they are of reproductive age. It occurs due to an imbalance of naturally occurring bacteria around this part of the body. Possible triggers for the infection can include having multiple sex partners, using certain contraceptives or even washing the vagina in certain ways.
If you are showing signs of having bacterial vaginosis, then it’s best to get them checked with your GP or by visiting a sexual health clinic. The infection can be uncomfortable and cause complications if left untreated, but there are numerous treatments which exist for dealing with this problem. Antibiotics are commonly prescribed when a woman is diagnosed with bacterial vaginosis.
Dr. Diana Gall
Our Health Care Team
"Bacterial vaginosis is something women may be embarrassed to see their doctor about, but it is a common infection and it is worth getting a proper diagnosis and treatment for it as soon as possible to minimise the risk of complications. You shouldn’t try treating it yourself and you should get professional help since you may find yourself treating the wrong condition. For instance, BV and vaginal thrush share some similar symptoms."
Bacterial vaginosis explained
Bacterial vaginosis (known as BV for short) is an infection in the vagina which usually affects women who are sexually active. However, it is not considered a sexually transmitted infection and it is a condition that can affect women who have not had sex.
One of the most common symptoms of bacterial vaginosis is unusual vaginal discharge which is usually grey in colour. It often has a thin watery consistency and the nasty smell of it is typically described as ‘fishy’. Other symptoms are possible such as swelling or an itching or burning feeling around the vagina, but not all women who get BV experience noticeable symptoms.
Bacterial vaginosis is not a life threatening condition, but it can lead to complications if it’s left untreated, especially if you have BV while pregnant. Having BV also increases the risk of getting serious STIs such as HIV, so getting a diagnosis and treatment for this condition should be done as soon as possible.
Causes of bacterial vaginosis
The cause of bacterial vaginosis is a pH imbalance in the bacteria in the vagina. It means there’s an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria present in this area. Women with BV have more bad bacteria known as anaerobes than good bacteria known as lactobacilli. Due to this imbalance, the vagina becomes more vulnerable to infections.
There are a lot of reasons why bacterial vaginosis can occur. Having multiple sexual partners can increase the chances of getting this condition. Hygiene-related factors can also be a cause, but while some assume being unclean is a potential cause, being too clean can actually be the reason. If you wash your vagina too much with perfumed products or by douching, then you could disrupt the natural balance of bacteria and create the ideal environment for anaerobic bacteria to thrive. You should instead use wash products designed specifically for this intimate area of the body.
Menstruation can also be a cause of BV, because your periods can make your vagina less acidic and acidity is required for a healthy vagina. Tampons and pads can also cause BV, especially if they are fragranced. You’re less likely to get BV if you avoid fragranced products and change your tampon or pad on a frequent basis.
Certain contraceptive devices such as copper IUD can also cause BV, since they cause longer and heavier periods which increases the risk of anaerobic bacteria multiplying. You may want to consult your doctor if your using such a contraception device and you’ve been experiencing BV.
BV and thrush
Bacterial vaginosis and vaginal thrush have some similarities. They are both infections and their cause is related to a bacteria imbalance. But these conditions are not the same and there are differences in how they occur and what symptoms are more likely. Thrush in the vagina occurs when natural yeast that lives around this part of the body grows and multiplies in an unhealthy manner. Thrush is also a lot more likely to cause pain, irritation and a burning sensation around the vagina compared to BV.
If you experience vaginal discharge and it is white and looks a bit like cottage cheese, it is more likely a sign of thrush than BV (which causes a greyer and watery discharge). Discharge caused by thrush is also unlikely to smell. Whether you have BV or thrush, you should see a doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing symptoms of either condition so you can get a proper diagnosis and the right treatment.
If you think you may have bacterial vaginosis, the best thing to do is visit your GP or a sexual health clinic. When you are either, it will be established whether you definitely have BV or if it could be an STI (depending on your recent activity).
You’ll be asked about your symptoms and a doctor or nurse may examine your vagina. A cotton bud may be wiped over the discharge inside your vagina to test for bacterial vaginosis or STIs.
BV in pregnancy
While bacterial vaginosis can come and go without symptoms or complications, it is best to treat it because the complications it could cause can be severe, especially if your pregnant when you get the condition. When pregnant, BV can increase the chances of experiencing premature birth and miscarriage. Even if you’re not pregnant, BV can lead to nasty complications such as getting chlamydia or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The latter affects the upper genital tract in particular and can cause a lot of pain around the pelvic area.
Treating bacterial vaginosis
Prevention is preferable to having to cure bacterial vaginosis. A few steps you can take to minimise the chances of getting this condition include using mild, non-fragranced soaps, tampons and pads, wash underwear with mild detergents and avoid douching. Utilising protective measures like latex condoms during sex will also reduce the chances of getting BV.
If you do get diagnosed with BV, then there are medicines which can be used to restore the acidity in the vagina, allowing more healthy bacteria to grow. These treatments are usually prescribed rather than simply purchased over the counter.
Antibiotics like metronidazole and clindamycin are medications which are commonly prescribed for treating BV. Taking tablets like these should usually have the infection cleared up in 7 days.
It’s possible for some women to experience recurring episodes of bacterial vaginosis. It’s plausible for the condition to return around 3 months after it was treated. Having sex with multiple partners (or just having unprotected sex) can cause BV to return, or it may come back because of an underlying condition which is causing an imbalance in the vaginal bacteria. See your GP if you are regularly getting BV to determine the cause of this issue. You can treat recurring BV but it usually takes longer than one-off cases (usually up to 6 months).