Bacterial vaginosis, commonly referred to as BV, is one of the most common reproductive infections found in women. Affecting up to 20% of all women in their childbearing years, this infection is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina.
Bacterial vaginosis can lead to a number of unpleasant symptoms; however, the infection can also present no visible signs. As a result, it is can be difficult for women infected with the bacterial vaginosis to get proper treatment. Treatment for bacterial vaginosis is important, as the infection has been linked to a number of serious health complications.
What Causes Bacterial Vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis occurs when the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina is disturbed. Typically, your vagina contains a balance of healthy bacteria, known as lactobacilli, and dangerous bacteria, known as anaerobes. The acidic environment of the vagina aids in keeping this bacterial balance in check.
Sometimes, however, the environment in the vagina is disrupted and, as a result, the number of anaerobes begins to increase. This leads to bacterial vaginosis.
Unfortunately, researchers have not determined the definite causes behind these disruptions in the vagina’s environment. However, certain factors do seem to increase your risk of developing the overgrowths that cause bacterial vaginosis. These risk factors include:
- Vaginal Intercourse: Women who have participated in vaginal intercourse appear to be much more likely to develop bacterial vaginosis than those women who are abstinent. However, the infection itself is not passed during sexual activity.
- Multiple Sex Partners: Women who have more than one sex partner are more likely to develop bacterial vaginosis.
- Douching: Douching can irritate the lining of the vagina leading to an overgrowth of anaerobes.
- IUD Use: Use of an IUD (intrauterine device) can introduce bacteria into the reproductive tract, triggering a bacterial vaginosis infection.
- Having an STD: Women who have STDs suffer from bacterial vaginosis at a highly increased rate. In fact, 64% of women with an active STD also have bacterial vaginosis.
Symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis
Unfortunately, many women with bacterial vaginosis experience few signs of the infection. This can make it difficult for a woman to recognize the illness, making it less likely that she will get treatment.
Possible symptoms of a bacterial vaginosis infection include:
- Abnormal Vaginal Discharge: Women with bacterial vaginosis often have vaginal discharge that is abnormal in colour and consistency. Discharge tends to be very thin and milky white or grey in colour.
- Unpleasant Odour: Women with bacterial vaginosis often notice that their vaginal discharge has a fishy odour, particularly after sexual intercourse.
- Itching: A bacterial vaginosis infection can trigger itching around the vulva and opening to the vagina. You may also notice some redness or irritation.
- Burning Sensations: Bacterial vaginosis can trigger burning sensations during sexual intercourse and urination.
Complications of Bacterial Vaginosis
Most women with bacterial vaginosis experience no additional health complications. However, if left untreated the infection can increase your risk of certain serious health problems.
These complications include:
- increased risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- increased risk of contracting HIV
- increased risk of contracting and transmitting other STDs, including chlamydia and gonorrhoea
Women who experience a bacterial vaginosis infection during pregnancy are at particular risk for complications. Bacterial vaginosis has been associated with an increased risk of preterm delivery and pregnant women with the infection are more likely to give birth to a low-birth weight baby.
Diagnosing Bacterial Vaginosis
Diagnosis of the bacterial vaginosis infection is usually performed by your primary health care provider. Your health care provider will perform a pelvic exam and look for any signs of bacterial vaginosis, particularly, abnormal vaginal discharge. A sample of your vaginal fluid will also be taken and analyzed for the presence of bacteria.
Treating Bacterial Vaginosis
Sometimes, a bacterial vaginosis infection will disappear without treatment. However, if you notice symptoms it is important that you ask your health care provider for proper treatment. This can help to reduce your risk of experiencing any complications caused by the infection, or from experiencing a recurrence.
Antibiotic medicines are the treatment of choice for bacterial vaginosis. You may be administered antibiotics in the form of oral medication or in the form of a vaginal cream or suppository.
The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for the infection include:
Preventing Bacterial Vaginosis
Because researchers are still unfamiliar with the triggers of this type of infection, it is hard to engage in preventative measures that are truly effective. However, there are some actions that you can take to help reduce your risk for developing the infection:
- Limit Sex Partners: Because the risk of contracting bacterial vaginosis increases with the number of sex partners you have, try to reduce this number. Limit sexual activity to only one partner.
- Use a Condom: Be sure to use a condom every time you engage in sexual activity. Condom use has been associated with lower rates of bacterial vaginosis.
- Follow Healthy Hygeine Practices: Try to ensure that you follow healthy vaginal hygiene practices. Avoid using harsh body sprays or feminine wipes and don’t douche. Ensure that the area around your vagina is kept clean and dry and always wipe from front to back after a bowel movement.
- Get Tested For STDs: Be sure to be tested regularly for STDs including gonorrohoea and HIV. Having an STD can sometimes be an indicator that you might also have bacterial vaginosis.
Hear from other women about the symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis, like vaginal itching and burning, in our Forum.