The SMSNA periodically receives and publishes ‘guest editorials.’ The current article was submitted by Mia Barnes, a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in women's health, wellness, and healthy living. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Body+Mind Magazine.
You might panic if you notice a fishy discharge down there. While your symptoms may spur worry, the problem could be a readily treatable and common condition known as bacterial vaginosis.
What causes this condition? Is it contagious? How can you treat it and prevent it? Here are your answers to eight things you need to know about bacterial vaginosis.
What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis sounds scary and can cause complications that threaten your reproductive health. However, most cases are not serious and are easily treatable.
- What Are the Symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis?
Some people with bacterial vaginosis have no symptoms. However, those who do may experience the following symptoms1 and should seek medical care to confirm the diagnosis and obtain treatment:
- Unusual vaginal discharge, which may be thin, light gray or white
- Itching and irritation around the vagina
- A strong fishy or musty odor
- Burning during urination
These symptoms can occur from this condition alone or appear along with other infections. It’s important to note that all vaginas have some degree of discharge — watch for odor and a change from usual patterns.
- Is Bacterial Vaginosis Sexually Transmitted?
Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It occurs when the “bad” bacteria in your vagina’s microbiome or natural bacterial colonies outpace the “good” variety.
However, those who are sexually active should get tested every six months2, as bacterial vaginosis can increase the risk of additional infections. Additionally, women with same-sex partners are more likely to pass the infection to their lover. Female-to-male transmission is possible but is rarer.
- What Is the Treatment for Bacterial Vaginosis?
The treatment for bacterial vaginosis is a course of antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe oral medications or creams you apply to your vagina.
- Is Bacterial Vaginosis a Yeast Infection?
Although the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis resemble those of a yeast infection, they are two different conditions. Bacterial vaginosis results from an overgrowth of bacteria, while yeast infections result from the fungus3 Candida albicans.
What to Expect From Your Doctor's Visit
There are currently no over-the-counter remedies for bacterial vaginosis. Here’s what to expect when you see your provider.
- What Tests Will Your Doctor Perform?
Your doctor may perform one or more of four tests4 to confirm your diagnosis:
- Wet mount: This swab lets doctors see clue cells that indicate the condition.
- Whiff test: Doctors apply a chemical that produces a strong fishy odor if an infection exists.
- Vaginal pH: Bacterial vaginosis raises vaginal pH levels.
- DNA test: Doctors test your swab for DNA from the bacteria.
Additionally, your doctor may perform additional tests to rule out other conditions, including sexually transmitted diseases.
How Can You Prevent Bacterial Vaginosis?
Although bacterial vaginosis isn’t serious, it can cause embarrassment. Additionally, it can lead to other health issues that may encourage you to seek treatment.
- Can Bacterial Vaginosis Lead to Other Health Problems?
Yes. Bacterial vaginosis can increase your risk of other sexually transmitted infections and pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Can Bacterial Vaginosis Affect Pregnancy?
Yes. Bacterial vaginosis can make it more difficult to get pregnant. It can also result in premature delivery if pregnant.
- Tips for Preventing Bacterial Vaginosis
Although bacterial vaginosis can seemingly strike without warning, avoiding certain behaviors can decrease your risk:
- Air it out: Avoid wearing overly tight clothing or lounging about in your gym gear after your workout, as warm, damp environments encourage bacterial overgrowth.
- Avoid douching: Douches upset your vaginal pH, which can encourage the growth of bad bacteria.
- Avoid scented products: Scented products with chemical additives can mask odor but make the problem worse by affecting your vaginal pH.
- Practice safe sex: Although bacterial vaginosis isn’t sexually transmitted, frequent contact can increase your risk by altering your vaginal conditions. Limit your number of partners, use condoms to prevent STDs, and get tested regularly. Refrain from sex when you have an infection to stop the spread.
Tips for Talking With Your Partner About Bacterial Vaginosis
Your partner might understandably react with alarm when you admit you have bacterial vaginosis. Share educational materials, like this article, with them to educate them about the condition and how you can treat it.
What You Should Know About Bacterial Vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis can cause considerable emotional distress. If left untreated, it can lead to complications. However, a trip to your doctor brings rapid relief and knowing best practices helps you prevent it.
- World Health Organization. (n.d.). Bacterial vaginosis. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/bacterial-vaginosis
- Hamilton Health Center. (n.d.). Top sexual health tips. https://www.hamiltonhealthcenter.com/top-sexual-health-tips/
- Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Yeast infection - Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999#:~:text=The%20fungus%20candida%20albicans%20is,%2C%20including%20candida%2C%20and%20bacteria.
- HealthLink BC. (n.d.). Bacterial vaginosis. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/tests-treatments-medications/medical-tests/tests-bacterial-vaginosis