Your vagina naturally hosts thousands of microorganisms, including "good" bacteria that help maintain health.
Some companies sell probiotic supplements that claim to promote the growth of these healthy bacteria in your vagina, much as digestive probiotic pills (along with foods like yogurt and kimchi) do in your digestive tract. You take some vaginal probiotics as pills, and insert others as suppositories into your vagina.
Research shows that probiotic use holds promise for digestive problems like antibiotic-resistant diarrhea and ulcerative colitis. And a few early studies indicate that vaginal probiotics might be helpful in some cases, too. But scientists don’t yet know enough to deem them safe and useful.
Why Do People Use Vaginal Probiotics?
People may turn to vaginal probiotics because of two common problems:
- Bacterial yeast infection. A fungus called candida normally lives in balance with other microorganisms in your vagina. But in a yeast infection, the candida grows so much that it overcomes healthy bacteria. You might notice itchiness and discharge that looks like cottage cheese.
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV). Here, certain harmful bacteria grow enough to outnumber healthy bacteria like lactobacillus. You might notice a fishy smell, especially after your period or after sex, along with a gray-greenish discharge. Scientists don’t know why BV happens. It’s the most common vaginal infection in women of childbearing age.
Others might use probiotics to maintain vaginal health, even when they have no obvious problems. But some doctors warn there could be dangers in introducing new bacteria and other microorganisms into your body.
Do Probiotic Supplements Benefit Vaginal Health?
Some scientists believe taking probiotics might help to restore a healthier balance of bacteria in the vagina. That works in theory and in some lab experiments.
But what works in the laboratory doesn’t always work the same way in the human body. It may not be as simple as introducing healthy bacteria in the form of a pill or suppository.
So far, there's little evidence to suggest that these supplements improve vaginal health. This may change as scientists learn more. But for now, antibiotic and antifungal medications are the only treatments known to be effective for vaginal bacterial and yeast infections.
The Risks of Probiotics
The FDA doesn’t regulate probiotics that are sold as dietary supplements. That means their labels can make claims about what's in them and how they work that may not be true. So it’s best to be cautious.
We need more research on how safe probiotics are. But scientists say they may have some harmful effects, including:
- Unlisted ingredients that could pose health risks
- Unsafe substances made by probiotic microorganisms
Your risk of harmful side effects is higher if you have a serious illness or problems with your immune system.
Talk to Your Doctor
Don’t postpone a visit to your doctor while you try a probiotic to treat vaginal symptoms. It may not help you. And if your symptoms are caused by a serious condition, it poses health risks.
Always tell your doctor before you start any alternative or complementary treatment. Together, you can come up with a safe and effective treatment plan.