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Douching Linked to Vaginal Infections

Largest Study to Date Confirms Risks

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Oct. 8, 2002 -- Women who douche may think they are doing something good for their bodies, but they really are disturbing their own, protective bacterial balance. A new study confirms that women who douche at least once a month are more than 40% more likely to have a mild vaginal infection than women who never douche.

Researchers say it's the largest study to date on the effects of douching on vaginal health. It appears in the October issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The study involved 1,200 women at high risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and found that douching increased the risk of a common infection known as bacterial vaginosis (BV). Women who had douched within the last month were 40% more likely to have the infection, and the risk of infection doubled if the woman had douched within the last week.

Although previous research has also linked douching to an increased risk of HIV and other STDs and cervical cancer, researchers say douching is a remarkably common practice in the U.S. About 40% of the women in the study reported douching at least once a month.

Most women in the study said they douched for symptoms, such as odor, or for hygienic reasons. Both reasons for douching were associated with a higher risk of bacterial vaginosis. The infection is caused by excessive amounts of a certain type of bacteria that crowd out other, healthier types of bacteria normally found in the vagina.

Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include a grayish-white discharge and fishy odor, but up to 50% of the women with bacterial vaginosis don't have any symptoms. Most non-pregnant women with the infection do not require treatment, but bacterial vaginosis can cause complications in pregnant women.

Researchers say douching increases the risk of infection by altering the normal bacterial balance in the vagina. Nearly 90% of the women in the study used two major store brands of douches, and the study found both brands had similar effects on the vaginal flora.

Study author Roberta B. Ness, MD, MPH, of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues, says that bacterial vaginosis has also been linked to acquisition of HIV, preterm birth, and pelvic inflammatory disease, which means the study's findings add to growing concerns about the adverse health effects of douching.

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