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What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?

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Dr. Michael Green
Medically Reviewed byDr. Michael GreenMD, OB/GYN Chief Medical OfficerRead Bio
Written ByJill Kirby
Published08/09/22
Updated09/20/23

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection that can cause discharge, odor, and itching and is estimated to affect 1 in every 3 women at some point in their lives.1 If left untreated, BV can lead to other health problems, such as a vaginal yeast infection and complications with pregnancy.

There are many causes of BV, including having multiple sex partners or partners with a history of pubic lice, yeast infection, or BV themselves.

Thankfully, BV is a relatively easy condition to treat. Several over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to help clear up the infection. The best way to avoid getting BV in the first place is by practicing good hygiene habits and using a condom during sex.

What is bacterial vaginosis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), "bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal problem for women ages 15 to 44."2

The vagina is home to many different bacteria, with good bacteria working to keep bad bacteria out. BV occurs when there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, the most common of which is called Gardnerella Vaginalis.

As Gardnerella Vaginalis overgrows, it can cause painful urination and vaginal infection in some women. It is also possible to have BV without symptoms.

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Who gets BV?

BV is more common in women who have multiple sex partners, but it can occur in women who have never had sexual intercourse.3 Pregnant women are also at an increased risk of developing BV.

Risk factors for BV include not using a condom during intercourse, having a new sex partner, having a female sex partner, and having an intrauterine device (IUD).

Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis

BV symptoms can vary from woman to woman. The most common symptom is an unusual, foul-smelling, vaginal discharge that can be white, yellow, or gray, Other symptoms may include burning, itching, and pain during urination or intercourse. There can also be some soreness around the opening of the vagina. Even with these symptoms, while uncomfortable, the condition is usually relatively painless.

Risks associated with bacterial vaginosis

BV is not harmful, but if untreated, it is associated with an increased likelihood of HIV transmission and other STIs, increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, and lower chances of successful fertility treatment. It should also be noted that BV is linked to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy.4

Treatment of bacterial vaginosis

In most cases, BV infections will clear up on their own. For women who aren’t pregnant, a doctor may recommend over-the-counter treatments. For pregnant patients, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic by mouth or an intravaginal cream or gel.

The specific antibiotics used for treatment will depend on the exact type of bacteria that are causing the infection. Medications can include metronidazole, tinidazole, and clindamycin, or vaginal suppositories like clindamycin.

Some women with BV may also have symptoms of a yeast infection, in which case that may need to be treated separately. Some women will have no symptoms during their treatment, but side effects can include diarrhea or nausea.

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How to reduce the risk of developing bacterial vaginosis

To avoid developing BV, consider the following:

  • Avoid douching. This can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in your vagina and lead to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria.

  • Practice safe sex by using condoms and limiting your number of sexual partners. This will help reduce your exposure to diverse, harmful bacteria.

  • Practice good hygiene by washing your vaginal area regularly with mild soap and water. This will help remove any harmful bacteria that may be present.

BV is nothing to be embarrassed by; it’s very common, affecting over a third of all women at some point, and it’s easily treatable. If you think you may have BV, see a doctor so that you can get the treatment you need for relief and to avoid the risk of developing other conditions.

“This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.”

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