What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?

Both "good" and "bad" bacteria live in your vagina. If the delicate balance between them is upset, you can get an infection called bacterial vaginosis, or BV for short. You may not have symptoms, and you may not need treatment.

Most of the time, BV doesn't cause any other health problems. But it can lead to other issues, especially when you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

Causes

A type of bacteria called lactobacillus keeps your vagina slightly acidic so bad types of bacteria don't grow well. If your lactobacillus levels drop, more bad bacteria move in, and you get BV.

Any woman can get BV, but some things raise your odds, including:

You'd think that keeping your lady bits clean would stop BV, but when you wash out your vagina by douching, you upset the natural balance of bacteria. Scented soaps, bubble baths, and vaginal deodorants have a similar effect.

A new sex partner, or having more than one, makes it more likely that you'll get BV. The reason why isn't clear, but women who have female partners are most at risk. You can also get BV from oral and anal sex.

An IUD birth control device, which fits inside your uterus, has been linked to BV -- especially if you have irregular bleeding. But we need more studies to know if it's really a cause.

You might have heard that you can get vaginal infections like BV from swimming pools or public toilet seats, but that's not true.

Symptoms

Around half of all women with BV show no symptoms. But if you do, you could notice a:

  • Thin white, gray, or green discharge
  • Burning feeling when you pee
  • Fishy smell that gets stronger after sex

It's not the same as a yeast infection. Those often itch, have a thick, white discharge, and don't smell.

Diagnosis

You'll need to check with your primary care doctor or gynecologist. She'll ask about your symptoms and do a vaginal exam. She may use a cotton swab to take a sample of your discharge to check under a microscope for BV.

Taking a sample can also help your doctor or a lab rule out other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhea or trichomoniasis, which share some symptoms.

Continued

Treatment

If you don't have any symptoms and aren't pregnant, you may not need treatment. Your BV may go away on its own.

When you do have symptoms, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to get rid of your infection. This could be a tablet you take by mouth or a cream or gel you apply to your vagina. You'll need to take most treatments for 5 to 7 days. And you should finish all of your medicine, even if your symptoms go away. If you stop early, your infection could come back.

Since BV could be spread through sex, avoid all sexual contact until you're better. If your partner is another woman, she may want to see her doctor so she can be treated, too.

If you use an IUD and BV keeps coming back (recurrent BV), you may want to talk to your doctor about a different type of birth control instead.

Even after BV is treated and goes away, it's common for it to return. If that happens, you'll probably need to take antibiotics again for a longer time.

Other Infections

Having BV makes it easier for you to get an STI like herpes, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. If you already have HIV, BV raises your chances of passing it on to your partner.

If you have BV when you get a hysterectomy or other surgery on your female organs, you're more likely to come down with a bacterial infection afterward.

Some of the same things that cause BV can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.

Pregnancy

When you're going through fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF), you may have less success if you have BV.

Pregnant women with BV have had babies who were born premature (before the 37th week) or with a low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds). Since there's a chance BV could be the cause, you should get it treated.

Prevention

To lower your chances of getting BV, use only water – not even soap -- when you wash your genital area. Don't douche. When you go to the bathroom, wipe from front to back, from your vagina toward your anus.

Put a condom on before his penis touches your vagina, mouth, or anus. Clean sex toys after every use.

Limit the number of sex partners you have. Get tested for STIs, and have your partners get tested, too.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on September 21, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Bacterial Vaginosis -- CDC Fact Sheet."

Mayo Clinic: "Bacterial Vaginosis."

NHS Choices: "Bacterial Vaginosis."

Womenshealth.gov: "Bacterial Vaginosis."

Cleveland Clinic: "Bacterial Vaginosis."

International Journal of STD & AIDS: "Bacterial vaginosis and smoking."

Sexually Transmitted Disease: "Risk of Bacterial Vaginosis in Users of the Intrauterine Device: A Longitudinal Study."

FamilyDoctor.org: "Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)."

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: "Bacterial Vaginosis -- Women's Health Guide."

Merck Manual: "Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)."

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