Vaginal infections are an unpleasant but often an unavoidable part of being a woman. Most women suffer from some type of vaginal infection at least once in their lives, and many women are plagued with recurrent vaginal infections. Yeast infections are the most common type of vaginal infection, however, many women also develop an infection known as bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis affects millions of women every year and can sometimes increase your risk for certain health complications.
What is Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)?
Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is one of the most common types of vaginal infections. It occurs when there is an overgrowth of bacteria inside of your vagina. In order to stay healthy, your vagina maintains a balance of good bacteria (called lactobacilli) and bad bacteria (called anaerobes). Sometimes, the balance of these bacteria shifts, and the bad bacteria begin to take over. This results in bacterial vaginosis. Also known as non-specific vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis is thought to affect a large percentage of women of child-bearing age.
What Causes Bacterial Vaginosis?
Unfortunately, no one is really sure what causes the number of bad bacteria inside of the vagina to increase. Bacterial vaginosis does seem to be linked with sexual activity and certain reproductive health practices. Bacterial vaginosis may be linked to:
- having sex with multiple partners
- having unprotected sex
- using an IUD (intrauterine device)
Who Gets Bacterial Vaginosis?
Any woman is at risk for developing bacterial vaginosis. In fact, between 10% and 65% of the female population is thought to have the bacterial vaginosis infection. 16% of these women are expectant mothers. Women who are sexually active appear to be at greatest risk for developing bacterial vaginosis. Other risk factors include going through menopause, suffering from diabetes, or having another type of chronic disease.
Symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis is often a symptom-free infection. This can make it very difficult for women to know that they have the infection. Other women experience symptoms including:
- vaginal discharge that is abnormally thick or thin
- white or gray vaginal discharge
- vaginal discharge that has a fishy or musty odor, particularly after intercourse
- itching around the vaginal opening
- burning during urination
Complications of Bacterial Vaginosis
If you are noticing any symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, it is a good idea to seek treatment from your health care provider as quickly as possible. This is because bacterial vaginosis can increase your risk of:
- contracting HIV from an infected partner
- passing on HIV to a sexual partner
- contracting another STD, like gonorrhea or chlamydia
- developing PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)
Bacterial Vaginosis and Pregnancy
It is particularly important to seek treatment for bacterial vaginosis if you contract the infection during your pregnancy. Bacterial vaginosis can:
- increase baby's chance of being born at a low birth weight.
- increase your chances or preterm labor
- increase your chances of other pregnancy complications.
Additionally, bacterial vaginosis can permanently affect your fertility. If left untreated, bacteria from the vagina can travel into your uterus, causing serious damage to your fallopian tubes. This can leave you at risk for future ectopic pregnancies or for complete infertility.
Diagnosing and Treating Bacterial Vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis can be easily diagnosed by your health care provider. After performing a simple pelvic exam, your health care practitioner will take a swab of your vaginal secretions. This swab will then be analyzed for the presence of the bacteria that causes bacterial vaginosis.
If you are suffering from bacterial vaginosis, your health care provider will prescribe a course of antibiotics. Given orally or vaginally, this antibiotic cure for bacterial vaginosis will help to restore bacterial balance to your vagina. Treatment is the same for both pregnant and non-pregnant women; however, dosages may vary from patient to patient. Be sure to finish your entire course of medicine, even if all of your symptoms have disappeared.
You may also want to try out some alternative treatment methods to help cure your bacterial vaginisos. Yogurt and tea tree oil can help to kill bad bacteria while promoting good bacteria. Simply apply plain, unpasturized yogurt directly to your vagina, or insert tea tree oil suppositories, and wait for results.
Preventing Bacterial Vaginosis
Because there is no known cause for bacterial vaginosis, it is difficult to provide women with tips on how to prevent it. The best thing that you can do is maintain good vaginal health:
- Limit the number of sex partners that you have.
- Abstain from sex or engage in protected sex.
- Avoid douching, as this will only push bacteria further up into the reproductive tract.
Get advice from other women about bacterial vaginosis from other women in our women's health forum.