You’ve likely heard of yeast infections, UTIs, and maybe even trichomoniasis, but what about bacterial vaginosis? Bacterial vaginosis, also known as BV, is the most common vaginal infection. It’s most likely to impact women during their reproductive years but can happen at any age. Keep reading to learn about this very common, but often misunderstood vaginal infection.
Healthy Vaginas Are Filled With Bacteria
Now before we jump into this, I want to make it clear that healthy vaginas have bacteria. Our vaginal flora is chocked full of the bacteria, lactobacillus, which is what keeps our lovely lady parts healthy. A dash of lactic acid, a dollop of hydrogen peroxide, and a variety of other substances make yeast and other undesirable organisms stay away.
A War Over Your Vagina: Understanding Bacterial Vaginosis
When all is well in the vagina, our pH level hovers around 4, but when this changes, oh boy, are you in for a surprise. Bacterial vaginosis comes along when there are not enough healthy bacteria in your vagina to fight off the bad ones. Bad bacteria, like Gardnerella vaginalis, comes through like a large army to overtake the good, lactobacillus population. It’s literally like a war over your vagina and as you know, wars get pretty ugly.
Bacterial Vaginosis – Symptoms Uncovered
A lot of women wonder how they’d know if they had BV, but those who’ve had it would tell you, you’d just know. Bacterial vaginosis has a very distinctive scent, which is a result of the war between good bacteria and bad bacteria going on down under. However, it’s also important to point out that some ladies don’t have any symptoms at all. Or sometimes the symptoms are so mild that they go completely unnoticed. Either way, here’s what you want to look for:
- Burning during urination
- Foul, fishy odor
- Vaginal itching
- Thin, gray, green, or white discharge
- Foamy discharge
- Pain during sex
What Causes BV (So I Can Avoid It)?
So we know that bacterial vaginosis is a result of an overgrowth of bacteria, but how does this happen? Essentially, how do we go from happy and healthy vaginal flora to world war Z? Well, some women are more genetically inclined to develop BV whereas others are at risk because of their lifestyle.
Genetics and Bacterial Vaginosis
Our genes are interesting, even down to what goes on with our vaginas. Turns out, some of us naturally lack lactobacilli bacteria. If our vaginal flora doesn’t produce enough of this good bacteria, then it makes it a little easier to let the bad bacteria take over. As a result, you’d be more likely to get BV than someone else. Also, some vaginas are more prone to inflammation, which can disrupt your vaginal environment too.
Lifestyle and Bacterial Vaginosis
If you’re doing anything that might change the chemistry of your vagina’s pH balance, you’re at risk of BV. Rumor has it that sperm can cause bacterial vaginosis, but that’s not true. However, new sex partners or multiple sex partners does increase your risk of BV. Here are a few other causes:
- Unprotected anal, oral, or vaginal sex
- Shared sex toys
- Intrauterine Devices (IUDs)
- Vitamin D deficiency
Diagnosing Bacterial Vaginosis
Once you notice symptoms, you should make a point to visit your primary care physician. They’ll talk with you about your symptoms and do various tests to figure out exactly what it is. BV doesn’t come from a single source, so a healthcare professional will have to base your diagnosis on the above. They will likely review your medical history, conduct a pelvic exam, do a pH test, and evaluate your vaginal secretions under a microscope. After that, they will be able to confirm your diagnosis.
Treating Bacterial Vaginosis
Most BV cases are treated with a short course of antibiotic drugs like metronidazole and clindamycin. You can find these in pill form or as a gel or cream to put in your vagina. In recurring BV cases, take probiotics to promote the growth of lactobacillus bacteria. Sometimes the vaginal flora is thrown off and needs a little help getting back to normal. It’s important to make sure that you refrain from sex until you finish treatment and your symptoms go away. Otherwise, you risk developing BV again or passing it to your partner (in same-sex relationships). Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted infection, but BV is more common in lesbian women and frequently occurs in both members of lesbian couples.
Now You Know About BV
29% of women or 21.2 million women between 14-49 will develop bacterial vaginosis. It’s a very common condition and can develop easily, so know that you’re not alone. Although common, many women have never heard of BV and some have it, but don’t know it. If you think bacterial vaginosis may be affecting you, contact your doctor for testing and treatment.
By Jessica Thomas, MPH