Many women have experienced or will experience a vaginal infection. The most common of these vaginal infections is bacterial vaginosis, also known as BV. Nearly 30% of women in the U.S. will experience bacterial vaginosis at some point in their lifetime. While bacterial vaginosis may be uncomfortable, there are a variety of methods and medicines to help get rid of the infection. In some cases, bacterial vaginosis may even disappear on its own.
What is bacterial vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis is an infection of the vagina. Normally, your vagina is in a state of natural balance between “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. When your vagina’s natural pH (acidity level) is increased, this can cause an increase in growth of “bad” bacteria (most commonly Gardnerella vaginalis bacteria). When the “bad” bacteria outnumber the “good” lactobacilli bacteria, infection can occur. This infection is called bacterial vaginosis.
Some people with bacterial vaginosis do not experience any symptoms. However, many others do experience symptoms, which may include:
- Thin green, white, or grey vaginal discharge
- A fishy odor
- Vaginal itching (usually around the outside of the vagina)
- Pain or burning around the vagina
These symptoms may be particularly noticeable after sex or possibly during your period.
Doctors are not entirely sure what causes bacterial vaginosis. However, there are several activities that doctors believe can lead to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. This imbalance of natural bacteria can cause bacterial vaginosis. These causes may include:
- Sexual activity, particularly with more than one partner (BV is not a sexually transmitted disease)
- Douching (cleaning your vagina with water or soap)
- Using scented soaps to clean your vagina
Who can get bacterial vaginosis?
Anyone with a vagina can get bacterial vaginosis. However, bacterial vaginosis is more common in some women than others. Women who are sexually active or have multiple partners, women who douche, and women of African ethnicity are more likely to get bacterial vaginosis. However, women who do not fit these characteristics may still experience a case of BV.
Diagnosis for bacterial vaginosis
Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose bacterial vaginosis. While you can buy pH test kits over the counter, they may not be accurate. It is important to have a doctor diagnose BV, since the infection may look or feel similar to other vaginal infections like yeast infections or trichomoniasis.
There are four methods your doctor can use to diagnose bacterial vaginosis.
- Your doctor can measure the pH (acidity level) of your vagina. If you have BV, your vagina’s pH will be higher than normal.
- Your doctor can look at your discharge to see if it is typical of bacterial vaginosis.
- Your doctor can examine a sample of your vaginal discharge under a microscope to look for “bad” bacteria attached to your cells.
- Your doctor can do a whiff test. For a whiff test, your doctor will add a chemical to a sample of your discharge and smell it. A fishy odor can tell your doctor that you have BV.
Treatments for bacterial vaginosis
Some cases of bacterial vaginosis will go away on their own. However, sometimes treatment is necessary.
Probiotics, live bacteria that can be found in food and supplements, may be a helpful home remedy both to treat and prevent bacterial vaginosis. The “good” lactobacilli bacteria in probiotics can help prevent an overgrowth of “bad” infection-causing bacteria. Studies show that eating food with probiotics, like yogurt, or taking probiotic supplements can help treat BV successfully.
Another remedy that is still being researched is boric acid. Boric acid is a white powder that has antifungal and antiviral properties. When inserted by suppository into your vagina, boric acid might help treat bacterial vaginosis. More research is needed to confirm boric acid’s remedial effects.
Lastly, some research shows that 2000 IU per day of vitamin D supplements can help prevent bacterial vaginosis.
Possible complications and side fffects
While mild cases of bacterial vaginosis are not dangerous, if the infection is left untreated, serious health risks may occur. These risks include:
- An increased risk of contracting HIV
- An increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia or gonorrhea
- An increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) which can cause fertility problems
- An increased risk of a premature birth if you are pregnant
You should also talk to your doctor about possible side effects of home remedies or antibiotics.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: "Paternal race and bacterial vaginosis during the first trimester of pregnancy."
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine: "Douching: a problem for adolescent girls and young women."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines: Bacterial Vaginosis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Bacterial Vaginosis — CDC Fact Sheet."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) Statistics."
Indian Journal of Medical Research: Evaluation of vaginal pH for detection of bacterial vaginosis."
Indian Journal of Medical Research: "Treatment of vitamin D deficiency is an effective method in the elimination of asymptomatic bacterial vaginosis: A placebo controlled randomized clinical trial."
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Probiotics for the Treatment of Bacterial Vaginosis: A Meta-Analysis."
Journal of Applied Microbiology: "The Etiology of Bacterial Vaginosis."
Sexually Transmitted Diseases: "Boric Acid Addition to Suppressive Antimicrobial Therapy for Recurrent Bacterial Vaginosis."
UNC Health: "What's the difference between yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis?"