Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection that women experience. It occurs when there is an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina, causing a change in the natural bacterial balance. While BV is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, it does increase a woman’s susceptibility to contracting STIs. Fortunately, with proper diagnosis and treatment, bacterial vaginosis can be cured and prevented from recurring.
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Understanding BV Symptoms
The primary symptom of bacterial vaginosis is an abnormal vaginal discharge that may have an unpleasant or “fishy” odor. The discharge is usually thin and grayish-white or yellowish in color. Other symptoms may include:
- Vaginal itching and irritation
- Burning sensation during urination
- Foul odor, especially during or after intercourse
- General discomfort, particularly in the vulva or vaginal area
However, it’s important to note that many women with BV experience no symptoms at all. BV is not considered an infection that spreads through the body. Symptoms are confined to the vagina and vulva.
What Causes Bacterial Vaginosis?
BV arises when the balance between good and bad bacteria in the vagina becomes disrupted. Normally, the vagina contains mostly good bacteria that produce hydrogen peroxide to keep harmful microbes in check. The main bacteria involved in BV are:
Gardnerella – This is the primary bacteria behind most BV cases. While small amounts of this bacteria naturally occur in the vagina, overgrowth leads to BV.
Bacteroides – One of the endogenous bacteria found in the vagina that can multiply and cause BV if the chemistry of the vagina changes.
Mobiluncus – Another type of vaginal bacteria that can overpopulate and cause the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis.
While the exact reason behind bacterial overgrowth is not known, certain factors are associated with increased risk:
- Having a new or multiple sex partners
- Douching, as this can upset the vaginal bacterial balance
- Use of an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control
- Antibiotic use, which can eliminate good bacteria
- Having never given birth vaginally
BV is not considered an STI, although sexual activity can increase BV risk. Women who have never had sexual intercourse can also develop bacterial vaginosis.
Getting Tested for Bacterial Vaginosis
If you suspect BV, it’s important to get tested by a healthcare provider. They will ask about symptoms and perform an exam of the vagina and vulva. From there, the main diagnostic tests are:
Microscopic examination – A sample of vaginal discharge is observed under a microscope. With BV, a shift in bacterial populations is visible.
Whiff test – A sample of discharge is combined with potassium hydroxide. A fishy odor indicates bacterial vaginosis.
pH test – The pH of vaginal fluid is tested. BV usually causes the vagina to have a pH higher than 4.5.
Oligonucleotide probes – Clinical lab testing uses probes to bind to bacterial DNA in a vaginal swab sample. The presence of Gardnerella and other bacteria in large amounts confirms bacterial vaginosis.
Once diagnosed, prompt treatment for BV is recommended to ease symptoms, avoid complications, and lower infection risk.
BV Treatment Options and Prevention Tips
Bacterial vaginosis is treatable through a variety of methods:
Oral antibiotics – Metronidazole or clindamycin are frequently prescribed antibiotics that can eliminate BV-causing bacteria. The usual course is taking the medication for 5-7 days.
Vaginal gels – Metronidazole or clindamycin gels are sometimes used for treatment inside the vagina. This provides more direct antibiotic exposure to affected tissues.
Probiotic supplements – Oral probiotics or vaginal suppositories can help restore populations of healthy lactobacillus bacteria. However, existing studies are inconclusive if probiotics alone can cure BV.
Hydrogen peroxide – Some research indicates that vaginal suppositories containing hydrogen peroxide may successfully treat bacterial vaginosis by creating an unfavorable environment for bad bacteria.
Along with treatment, there are other steps women can take to help prevent bacterial vaginosis recurrences:
- Avoid douching, which can disrupt vaginal bacterial balance
- Use condoms to lower STI/BV risk if having a new sexual partner
- Wear cotton underwear and avoid prolonged use of tight garments
- Don’t use scented soaps or hygiene products in the vulvovaginal area
- Stop smoking cigarettes and vaping, as studies link smoking with increased BV risk
- Practice general healthy habits to support immune function like diet, exercise, and stress management
While frustrating, bacterial vaginosis is a condition that can be overcome. Pay attention to symptoms, seek medical care when appropriate, and follow treatment directions carefully. With the right approach, normal vaginal microflora can be restored for long-term gynecologic health.
Frequently Asked Questions About Bacterial Vaginosis
What is bacterial vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis is a condition where there is an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the vagina. This disrupts the natural balance of microorganisms, causing symptoms like abnormal discharge, odor, and irritation. It is the most common cause of vaginitis.
Is bacterial vaginosis an STD?
No, BV is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection. However, sexual activity with a new or multiple partners can increase a woman’s risk of developing bacterial vaginosis. The condition relates to an imbalance of bacteria normally present in the vagina.
How do you get rid of bacterial vaginosis?
BV is treatable through oral antibiotic medications, vaginal antibiotic gels/creams, vaginal boric acid suppositories, and restoring healthy vaginal bacteria through probiotics. Over-the-counter products are not sufficient. See a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Can bacterial vaginosis recur after treatment?
Yes, there is a chance that bacterial vaginosis returns even after successful treatment. The highest recurrence rates are within 3-12 months after finishing treatment. To help prevent BV recurrence, avoid douching, practice safe sex, wear cotton underwear, and avoid irritants in feminine products.
Is there a home remedy for bacterial vaginosis?
There is no reliable home remedy that can cure bacterial vaginosis. However, eating yogurt with live cultures, taking probiotic supplements, rinsing with diluted apple cider vinegar, and increasing vitamin C intake may help restore healthy vaginal bacteria. But medical management is still recommended.
How do you test for bacterial vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis is diagnosed through pelvic exam, microscopic inspection of vaginal discharge, testing vaginal pH, and lab tests to detect high levels of Gardnerella and other bacteria. A doctor or gynecologist will perform diagnostic testing to confirm BV.
Can bacterial vaginosis go away on its own?
In some cases, the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of bacterial vaginosis may resolve without treatment. However, it is still recommended to see a doctor for antibiotics to fully eliminate bacterial overgrowth and lower the chances of recurrence. Leaving BV untreated raises health risks.
Is bacterial vaginosis contagious?
BV itself is not contagious. However, having bacterial vaginosis makes a woman more prone to acquiring STIs and HIV if exposed. It is also associated with preterm birth and low birth weight babies when pregnant. So even though BV itself is not contagious, it increases susceptibility to contagious conditions.
Can men get bacterial vaginosis?
No. Men cannot develop bacterial vaginosis, since the condition relates to an imbalance of microorganisms in the vagina. However, male sex partners of women with BV may be advised to get treated for certain STIs that could predispose to recurrent BV after initial treatment.
Key Takeaways: Overcoming Bacterial Vaginosis
- Bacterial vaginosis is caused by overgrowth of bacteria naturally present in the vagina, disrupting normal balance.
- Symptoms include thin, gray discharge, fishy odor, burning urination, vaginal itching. But many women have no symptoms.
- Have a doctor test for BV if symptomatic. Microscope inspection, pH testing, and lab tests confirm diagnosis.
- Oral antibiotics, vaginal antibiotic gels, boric acid, and probiotics can effectively cure bacterial vaginosis.
- To help prevent recurrence, avoid douching, wear cotton underwear, don’t use scented products, and practice safe sex.
- Seek medical treatment for bacterial vaginosis when needed. Proper management reduces infection risk and complications.