Bacterial vaginosis (BV) can occur when “good” and “bad” bacteria in the vagina are out of balance.
This can result in vaginal pain, itching, and discharge.
BV is one of the most common gynecological complaints in both children and adults.
Many people believe that BV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or disease (STD).
It is not. It’s a type of vaginal inflammation caused by an overgrowth of bacteria.
Still, it can be difficult to discern whether your symptoms are caused by BV or another infection, including a possible STI.
Because there are many possible causes of vaginal discomfort, it’s important to speak to a medical professional to determine the cause and decide the correct testing and treatment for your symptoms.
In this article, I’ll talk more about BV, including its causes, symptoms, treatment, and how it can be prevented. I’ll also tell you when to talk to a doctor about BV.
What is Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)?
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a type of vaginal inflammation caused by a change or imbalance of the normal bacteria found in the vagina.
BV is a common cause of vaginal itching and can result in an overgrowth of a bacteria called gardnerella vaginalis, which can allow other bacteria to grow—and cause symptoms.
Is it an STD?
No. BV is not a sexually transmitted infection, but it does occur more commonly in sexually active women.
Under normal circumstances, “good” bacteria (lactobacilli) in the vagina fights against microbes, fungi, and “bad” bacteria (anaerobes).
But when there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, things can get out of balance—causing BV.
There are some activities that can increase a person’s risk of getting BV, including:
- Having sex
- Having multiple sex partners
- Having a new sex partner
- Being naturally deficient in lactobacilli bacteria in the vagina
- Pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause
- Race (Black women are twice as likely as white women to get BV)
You cannot get BV from toilet seats, bedding, or swimming pools.
Many people experience recurrent cases of BV, even after treatment.
Recurrent BV can reappear 3-12 months after initially experiencing symptoms.
Though bothersome, BV recurrence is very common.
Experts are still researching ways to treat and prevent BV.
Emerging evidence shows that some at-home remedies, including eating certain types of yogurt or other foods that contain lactobacilli, may help.
Can BV spread through sexual partners?
No, BV cannot be transmitted during sex. However, having sex can increase the risk of getting BV.
When symptoms appear, they can include:
- Vaginal discharge, including discharge that is white, gray, or green, or foamy in texture
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Vaginal odor with a strong, fish-like smell, especially after vaginal sex
- Pain or burning when urinating
- Itching around the outside of the vagina
The symptoms of BV can be similar to those of a yeast infection and some sexually transmitted infections, which is why it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your symptoms.
BV typically goes away on its own within a few days.
Otherwise, there are some prescription treatments that can help alleviate symptoms—but you’ll need to speak with a provider to confirm the diagnosis first.
BV cannot be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) yeast infection medicine.
But managing BV at home is possible for some people who experience symptoms.
At-home treatment options include:
- Taking probiotic supplements
- Eating probiotic foods (including yogurt, or fermented foods like pickles or sauerkraut)
- Boric acid suppositories (when used alongside medication)
Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics to treat BV.
The treatment usually clears the infection in 2-3 days, but it is important to complete the entire course of antibiotics even if your symptoms go away sooner.
If a doctor needs to confirm the diagnosis before treating, a pelvic exam is needed to collect a vaginal swab of the discharge.
BV can occur for a number of reasons—certain things that may upset the balance for some people may not be a problem for others.
Keep the vagina healthy to lower your risk of BV by doing the following:
- Don’t use scented products: Choose mild soaps and unscented tampons or pads over scented products.
- Keep the vaginal area cool: Avoid irritation by wearing cotton or cotton-lined underwear.
- Don’t douche: Douching can be harmful to your vagina by washing away the good, healthy bacteria and throwing off its natural balance. It’s also unnecessary, since the vagina is self-cleaning.
- Reduce your number of sex partners: Evidence suggests that your risk of getting BV increases with the number of sexual partners you have.
- Practice abstinence: Though you can get BV without having sex, experts believe it to be more common in people who are more frequently sexually active.
When to See a Doctor
Though rare, BV can lead to some serious complications when left untreated.
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of BV that don’t go away on their own, including vaginal itching or irritation, reach out to your provider for care.
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