Bacterial Vaginosis Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Bacterial vaginosis is an infection of the vagina that causes an imbalance in the genitourinary system. Any condition with the word “vagina” (even the semblance of the word vagina) in the title may be embarrassing or uncomfortable to discuss; however, it is important to discuss symptoms with your healthcare provider in order to get proper treatment and prevent complications.

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Contents

  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?

Summary

Bacterial vaginosis is a very common condition. In fact, according to the CDC, bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection in women of childbearing age 15-44 [1].

Bacterial vaginosis can occur with any bacterial overgrowth of the vagina. Gardnerella vaginalis is the most common pathogen associated with bacterial vaginosis; however, many other bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Bacteroides, and Prevotella can also cause bacterial vaginosis.

Simply having bacteria in the vagina does not result in bacterial vaginosis. The body has baseline levels of bacteria in the vaginal area that are normal and necessary for bodily functions. Bacterial vaginosis stems from both an infection and overgrowth of bacteria that leads to an imbalance in the vagina that needs correction.

Why the imbalance that causes bacterial vaginosis occurs is not completely understood; however, certain activities such as douching or having multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of acquiring imbalances that result in bacterial vaginosis.

Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted infection (STIs); however, it can increase the risk of getting other STIs [1].

Recommended care

Bacterial Vaginosis Symptoms

Main symptoms

Many women with bacterial vaginosis are asymptomatic (do not have symptoms). However, common symptoms associated with the condition include:

  • Gray or white vaginal discharge
  • A strong, fish-like odor, especially after sexual activity
  • Vaginal pain
  • Vaginal irritation and itching
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Burning with urination

Risk Factors

Risk factors for bacterial vaginosis are well-researched. It is important to know the major risk factors for bacterial vaginosis, so you can have discussions with your healthcare provider about preventative measures you can take and things you can do to mitigate your risk. These risk factors include [2]:

  • A new sexual partner
  • An increase in the number of sexual partners
  • Douching
  • An intrauterine device
  • Recent antibiotic use

Complications

Do not ignore symptoms of bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis can cause serious health risks such as:

  • Increasing your risk of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea which can make it difficult or impossible to have children in some cases

  • Causing premature labor or delivery if you have bacterial vaginosis while you are pregnant

Bacterial Vaginosis Causes

Causes of bacterial vaginosis are often readily diagnosed and treatable; the overwhelming majority of causes stem from an imbalance in the vagina that needs to be corrected. In order to restore balance and treat abnormal vaginal discharge is important to follow up on your symptoms and seek medical attention promptly.

Infectious

The female reproductive system is open to the environment via the vagina, making it particularly susceptible to infection by not only outside organisms but also organisms already present within its walls. Bacterial vaginosis occurs when bacteria overgrow and cause infection that results in vaginal itching and abnormal discharge. Gardnerella vaginalis is a type of bacteria that is the most common culprit and is often the reason for the strong, fishy odor associated with bacterial vaginosis.

Other

The vaginal system lies in a delicate balance and many different substances can throw that balance out of line.

  • Obstructive: Any object inserted into the vagina that can obstruct the flow of vaginal fluid may result in vaginal imbalances. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) can also change the amount, quality, and consistency of your vaginal secretions leading to bacterial vaginosis.
  • Topical: Certain scented sprays and soaps and hygiene practices, such as douching, can disrupt the vaginal fluid balance and result in abnormal vaginal discharge.

Bacterial Vaginosis Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out if your symptoms point to bacterial vaginosis

Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for Bacterial Vaginosis

Treatment

Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, especially changes to the amount, quality or quantity of your vaginal discharge, can be discomforting and distressing.

Always take note of your body’s normal patterns so you can easily identify changes that do not fit your body’s normal processes. When you notice an abnormal pattern to your discharge or experience vaginal pain, itching or burning, make an appointment with your doctor or try these at-home remedies and lifestyle changes to combat your symptoms:

  • For itching or swelling, use a cold compress like an ice pack wrapped in a washcloth to alleviate discomfort.
  • Limit douching and use of scented soaps in order to restore balance to your vaginal secretions and prevent abnormal discharge.
  • Use a condom during sexual intercourse to prevent sexually transmitted infections and limit the number of sexual partners with whom you have intercourse.

However, if your symptoms continue to persist, make an appointment with your doctor. Seeking prompt medical attention when you notice symptoms of abnormal vaginal discharge accelerates your diagnose and allows you to get the appropriate treatment. Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are available for many bacteria that can cause bacterial vaginosis. It is important that you take the antibiotics consistently and according to your doctor’s orders. Missing doses of your antibiotic medication may actually worsen the imbalance causing your bacterial vaginosis.
  • Changes to your current contraceptive regimen: If contraceptive methods or other medications are contributing to your symptoms, your doctor may discuss stopping your current medications in favor of a new regimen.

Prevention

Since the transmission of bacterial vaginosis is unclear, prevention can be difficult. Most studies suggest that mitigating risk factors such as limiting sexual partners, limiting douching and not using intrauterine devices as contraception may be helpful in prevention.

In some women, bacterial vaginosis continues to return after treatment. Scientists don't understand why this happens. In some cases, treating the male sex partner or routine use of condoms may help to prevent this, but it is not guaranteed that these interventions help [3].

When to Seek Further Consultation for Bacterial Vaginosis

If you experience fever, chills, and/or abdominal pain along with changes in your vaginal discharge, seek medical attention immediately. These symptoms could signal an infection of the vagina or other parts of your reproductive system that is worsening and causing systemic problems.

Furthermore, call your doctor whenever you notice any abnormal vaginal odor or discharge, especially if you are pregnant.