Understanding BV: Bacterial Vaginosis


Bacterial Vaginosis Signs & Symptoms

Bacterial Vaginosis, or BV for short, is one of the most common causes for abnormal vaginal discharge.

BV is a mild infection of the vagina caused by an imbalance of bacteria. Typically, 95% of vaginal flora are lactobacillus bacteria. These bacteria help to keep your vaginal pH level low, which prevents an overgrowth of other types of organisms and fungi. It’s a delicate ecosystem and usually regulates itself quite nicely. In the case of bacterial vaginosis, the pH balance of the vagina is thrown out of whack. When BV occurs, there are fewer lactobacillus bacteria than normal.

For most people, BV is a mild problem that may clear up within a few days. That said, leaving any form of infection untreated can always develop into potential complications.

Causes of Bacterial Vaginosis

No one is sure exactly what causes BV. Some authorities believe it is transmitted sexually, while others disagree. There are plenty of times when BV occurs in women who are not sexually active, but women who are will usually be more likely to get bacterial vaginosis. Possible causes of BV include:

  • Certain types of medicine that are known to cause an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina
  • Hormonal changes, such as being pregnant, going through menopause or having your period
  • Sweating from exercising or wearing tight clothing without showering frequently enough
  • Douching or using scented soaps

A smelly vagina can be an indicator of an infection that needs to be treated. First thing’s first – there’s nothing wrong with your feminine odor. This is a natural and nothing to be ashamed of. With that in mind, it is important to really know your body so that you can more fully understand what is normal for your specific body and what is out of the ordinary.

Sometimes, a smelly vagina is a sign of something more serious. If your usual scent seems off and you notice a fishy odor associated with your vagina instead, you should take action.

A common misconception is that this smell is an indication of a yeast infection, but this is usually not the case. More likely this is a sign of bacterial vaginosis. While both infections have very common symptoms, a yeast infection typically does not have a foul odor associated with it.

Bacterial Vaginosis Signs & Symptoms

Unfortunately, just like chlamydia or gonorrhea, BV many not display any detectable signs. The symptoms that do occur can be mistaken for a yeast infection or be too mild to indicate an infection at all. The only way to know for sure whether or not you have BV is to screen for it.

If you do see symptoms, they will most likely include:

  • A thin white or gray vaginal discharge
  • Pain, itching, or burning in the vagina
  • A strong fishy odor, especially after sex
  • Burning when urinating
  • Itching around the outside of the vagina

Generally, it is a good idea to screen yourself when you have vaginal discharge that is unfamiliar to your body. Similarly, if you are prone to vaginal infections, it is good to be cautious whenever things seem off. Previous treatment cannot prevent a new BV infection.

The Risks of Untreated BV

BV is easy to treat when it’s been identified, but an untreated case of BV can make women more susceptible to certain sexually transmitted infections including HIV, chlamydia, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea. It can also increase the likelihood of your passing an infection to your partners. For example, an untreated bacterial vaginosis infection in a woman who is having sex with an HIV positive individual may increase the odds of her contracting the virus.

Pregnant women are also at greater risk. There is a serious danger of a premature delivery for women who have BV. Untreated BV can also result in a case of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection that can lead to anything from pain in your abdomen or a fever to an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy outside the womb) or infertility.

Reviewed by Luis Ferdinand M. Papa, MD, MHA

References

  1. Schaaf VM, Perez-Stable EJ, Borchardt K. The Limited Value of Symptoms and Signs in the Diagnosis of Vaginal Infections. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1990.
  2. Klebanoff MA, Schwebke JR, Zhang J, et al. Vulvovaginal Symptoms in Women With Bacterial Vaginosis. Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2004.
  3. Amsel R, Totten PA, Spiegel CA, et al. Nonspecific vaginitis: Diagnostic criteria and microbial and epidemiologic associations. American Journal of Medicine. 1983.
  4. Marrazzo JM, Koutsky LA, Eschenbach DA, et al. Characterization of Vaginal Flora and Bacterial Vaginosis in Women Who Have Sex with Women. The Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2002.
  5. Eschenbach DA, Hillier S, Critchlow C, et al. Diagnosis and clinical manifestations of bacterial vaginosis. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 1988.
  6. Georgijević A, Cjukić-Ivancević S, Bujko M. Bacterial vaginosis: Epidemiology and risk factors. Europe PubMed Central. 2000.

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