In healthy vaginas, good bacteria keep bad bacteria from excessively reproducing. But when something disturbs this balance, the harmful bacteria begin to take over, causing a vaginal infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV). This often leads to abnormal vaginal discharge and a foul odor from the vagina.
As with any condition, you can easily find home remedies online promising to treat bacterial vaginosis and clear up these symptoms. But many of these treatments not only are ineffective; some may exacerbate your infection.
To help ensure you properly treat and eliminate BV, in this article I’ll explain what bacterial vaginosis is, the symptoms and causes of BV, home remedy and prescription treatments, and how to prevent BV.
What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection among women of reproductive age in the United States.
Healthy women have both good and bad forms of bacteria and fungi living inside their vaginas. Good bacteria, like lactobacillus, protect against harmful microbes by producing enough hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid, and other substances to keep the vaginal environment acidic and inhospitable to them.
When a woman’s vaginal pH becomes unbalanced or disrupted, her levels of healthy bacteria decline, and her natural defenses against harmful microbes weaken. Fungi and bad bacteria can then proliferate inside the vagina and cause inflammation and discomfort. If a fungus, like candida, over-reproduces, it causes a vaginal yeast infection. If bad bacteria takes over, you have bacterial vaginosis.
Symptoms and Causes
Roughly 50% of people with BV do not experience symptoms. Among those women that do, the most common symptoms include:
- Thin, watery, gray, or white discharge
- A foul or fishy odor from the vagina, particularly after sexual activity or while menstruating
- Vaginal or vulvar itching
- Burning or pain during urination
BV occurs when there’s more harmful bacteria than good bacteria in the vagina. Risk factors for this imbalance include:
- Having a new sexual partner
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Using an intrauterine device (IUD)
- Being pregnant
Home Remedy Treatment Options
If you suspect you may have bacterial vaginosis, you should seek medical treatment, particularly if you are pregnant. While you may be tempted to try home remedies, many of these are unproven and some may be harmful. Here’s what you need to know about the most common natural remedies for BV.
There’s inadequate data to suggest that consuming yogurt can help treat BV. You also should never put yogurt into your vagina, as this can worsen symptoms by promoting bacterial growth.
Some studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements containing lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1, or lactobacillus fermentum RC-14 may help treat or prevent bacterial vaginosis. If you wish to try this, do your research on different brands. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, so some may not contain the ingredients that they advertise on their labels.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Although some evidence suggests that the bacteria that cause BV might be susceptible to tea tree oil, there haven’t been enough studies to suggest this is an effective treatment.
Research suggests that using boric acid suppositories along with the medication metronidazole (Flagyl, Metrogel-Vaginal) or tinidazole (Tindamax) may help prevent recurrent bacterial vaginosis. But talk to your doctor before you try this or combine any home remedy and medication.
Two small studies suggest using hydrogen peroxide as a vaginal wash may help clear up vaginal odor, improve discharge, and restore vaginal pH in patients with BV. As with many other home remedies, however, this isn’t enough evidence to recommend trying this.
One study looked at inserting garlic supplements vaginally to treat bacterial vaginosis. Although this treatment appeared to be as effective as metronidazole, this isn’t a green light to put garlic in your vagina.
In one study, patients used a vaginal cream infused with the extract of calendula officinalis, an herb commonly known as pot marigold. The participants in the study found it as effective at treating BV as metronidazole, but at this point we need further research before doctors can recommend using it.
Apple cider vinegar
Some people douche with apple cider vinegar or mix it into a bath to treat BV and other vaginal infections. But there is no clinical evidence to suggest those natural remedies treat the condition or relieve any symptoms. In fact, douching with apple cider vinegar can worsen your infection.
Although no home remedies are proven effective to treat bacterial vaginosis, you can take action to prevent BV and keep your vagina pH balanced and healthy.
Breathable cotton underwear
Bacteria love hot, moist environments. Since cotton is moisture-wicking and breathes, it can keep your vulva dry, helping reduce the chance of an infection.
Always wipe front to back when using the bathroom and do not use scented tampons or other feminine hygiene products.
If you’re prone to BV, you may want to consider limiting your number of sexual partners. Also practice safe sex by using latex condoms and dental dams. Lastly, although BV is not a sexually transmitted disease, women with BV can pass it to their female sexual partners. So you may want to skip sex until an infection clears up.
Douching can change the pH and bacterial balance of the vagina, which will only make you more susceptible to BV and other infections. The vagina is self-cleaning and doesn’t need any douching.
Can You Cure BV in One Day?
When you have BV, you want it to go away—now! But try to be patient. Conventional antibiotic medications are available as a single-dose or seven-day oral medication or a five- or seven-day intravaginal treatment. Most people who use a week-long course of antibiotics report that their symptoms subside within 2-3 days after they begin this treatment of bacterial vaginosis.
Take your medication exactly as directed, even if you no longer experience symptoms. If you stop taking your medicine early, your BV may come back and be more challenging to treat.
Other Treatment Options
Once you are diagnosed with bacterial vaginosis, your doctor will likely prescribe one of the following medications to eradicate your infection and restore balance to your vagina:
- Metronidazole (Flagyl, Metrogel-Vaginal): An antibiotic medication that you take orally as a pill or insert intravaginally as a gel. Side effects can include nausea, abdominal pain, and upset stomach. Avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medication.
- Clindamycin (Cleocin, Clindesse): An antibiotic cream that you insert vaginally. Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, and vaginal itching. This medication can weaken latex condoms, so use extra precautions while taking it.
Risks and Complications of BV
Although some cases of bacterial vaginosis are mild enough to clear up on their own, most patients with BV risk health complications if they don’t treat their condition. This includes a higher risk of chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as pelvic inflammatory disease, a potentially long-term condition that can lead to infertility.
Bacterial vaginosis can be particularly detrimental to women who are pregnant. Left untreated, symptomatic BV can lead to a higher risk of having a child with low birth weight and giving birth prematurely.
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing unusual vaginal discharge, odor, or other symptoms that give you a reason to believe you have bacterial vaginosis, contact your gynecologist or healthcare provider to be screened and treated as soon as possible. Once they test your vaginal fluid for signs of BV, they can prescribe a course of antibiotics that will treat your symptoms and restore your vaginal health.
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