Worried about bacterial vaginosis? These are the symptoms to look out for...

·4-min read

At some point in their lives, most women and people with vaginas will have encountered some kind of vaginal discomfort (be it itching or atypical discharge), but not everyone is clued up about what could be the cause.

Although plenty of us know about vaginal issues like thrush and cystitis, the same can't be said for bacterial vaginosis – also known as BV – and many of us only learn about the condition after we've Googled the symptoms we've experienced.

So, what actually is bacterial vaginosis? What are the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis? What causes bacterial vaginosis? And what treatment is available for it? To find out, we consulted with Anna Druet, a researcher at period-tracking app Clue – meaning you can consider yourself an expert (ish) when you've finished reading...

What is bacterial vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis (or BV) happens when the normal balance of vaginal bacteria is disrupted, being replaced by more bacteria that doesn’t need oxygen to grow. The most common type of BV-causing bacteria is called Gardnerella (not to be confused with the STI gonorrhea, just in case you were panicking), which creates different byproducts and causes environmental changes in your vagina, leading to the unpleasant symptoms listed below.

Because of the changes, an immune response is also triggered in the vagina which can make the vagina’s naturally protective mucus less effective, making the reproductive tract more prone to contracting STIs. Not a vibe.

bacterial vaginosis symptoms
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What are the bacterial vaginosis symptoms?

According to the NHS, symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include:

  • An unusual vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy smell, particularly after sex

  • A change to the colour and consistency of your discharge, such as becoming greyish-white and thin and watery

Notably, half of women and people with vaginas who have bacterial vaginosis do not have any symptoms.

What are the causes of bacterial vaginosis?

The exact causes of bacterial vaginosis are still unclear, but it's thought the natural vaginal environment can be disrupted by both internal factors (eg. antibiotics, diet) and external factors (eg. soap, semen).

Some people are also more prone to getting recurrent BV in certain situations, although it's not fully understood why that is. Some factors which are thought to increase risk, however, include douching and prolonged or irregular uterine bleeding.

People who have prolonged bleeding as a side effect of a new IUD, for example, may be more likely to have BV, but more research into this is needed. For the same reason, recurrent BV may tend to pop up around the time of of your period.

bacterial vaginosis symptoms
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Sexual activity is also associated with a higher risk of BV, with one study finding that around 85% of people who get BV are sexually active – even though it's not deemed an STI. Specific risk factors may include new or multiple sex partners, a lack of condom use, vaginal intercourse and receiving anal sex before vaginal intercourse without a new protective barrier.

Another study into bacterial vaginosis also revealed a link between oral sex and the infection. The research, published in the journal PLoS Biology, suggests that oral sex may create the right 'environment' for BV to occur.

In particular, one common type of mouth bacteria – fusobacterium nucleatum, that's linked with plaque and gum disease – was found to aid the growth of other bacteria involved in the onset of BV, leading experts to suggest oral sex could be a potential trigger. Because how else is mouth bacteria getting inside the vagina?!

How common is bacterial vaginosis?

BV is the most common vaginal complaint among women and people with a vagina of childbearing age, but it can occur at any age.

How can you treat and prevent bacterial vaginosis?

Vaginal bacteria can sometimes get out of balance and then improve on its own. To prevent BV, start by limiting your risk factors. Use condoms, don’t douche and keep soap away from your vulva and vagina (some experts say non-foaming unscented soap is okay on the vulva, and others say stick to water). Don’t use any products with scents or perfumes in that area, and limit your bubble baths.

bacterial vaginosis symptoms
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Treatment of BV can range from antibiotics and antiseptics, to medications that restore acidity as well as probiotics. Some treatments are available over the counter, but others will need a prescription, so it's best to talk to your doctor if you notice bacterial vaginosis symptoms.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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