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Bacterial vaginosis

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Bacterial vaginosis, also known as BV, is a common inflammatory condition that affects the vagina, which can sometimes cause a smelly discharge.

A healthy vagina is slightly acidic, which helps maintain the balance of bacteria. Normally “good” bacteria in the vagina limits the growth and development of any “bad” bacteria. However, when this balance is disrupted - which can happen if the pH of the vagina changes to become more alkaline - bacterial vaginosis can occur.

Although BV affects the vagina, it is not deemed to be a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but you can be more vulnerable to BV if you are sexually active.

What does bacterial vaginosis look like?

Many women can develop bacterial vaginosis without realising it, as it causes few noticeable symptoms.

If you do experience symptoms, it’s likely you’ll notice a change to your vaginal discharge. Healthy discharge is either clear or white, and thick and sticky or slippery and wet. Discharge in women with BV may have a strong, foul smell and be thin and grey-white.

There are some other conditions that can affect the genitals causing a change to your vaginal discharge – find out more by reading this article on our Online Doctor site.

To find out more about the specific signs of bacterial vaginosis read our BV symptoms guide.

Can BV go away on its own?

If your BV is mild it may go away on its own, however this is not always the case, which is why you may need a course of prescribed antibiotics.

In a worst-case scenario, untreated BV may lead to health complications. BV can develop during pregnancy and there’s a small chance of complications such as premature birth and miscarriage.

If you think that you might have BV it’s recommended that you visit your GP or see a nurse at your local sexual health clinic. They will be able to offer advice and treatment.

How can you prevent bacterial vaginosis?

There are precautions that you can take to protect yourself against BV and other vaginal infections. Maintaining your overall heath as well as the health of your vagina can help you to avoid infection and the symptoms associated with these.

It’s important to practice good feminine hygiene, and also to get to know your body, as this will help you to spot any signs of BV or infection. Many women experience changes to their vaginal discharge throughout their menstrual cycle - once you know what is normal for you it’s easier to spot when unusual symptoms.

Tips for preventing BV

  • Have showers instead of baths
  • Avoid using perfumed soaps to wash your genitals
  • Avoid using bubble baths or shower gels
  • Wear loose fitting cotton underwear
  • Use detergent that is gentle on skin when washing underwear
  • Avoid using vaginal washes, douches or deodorants

It can also help to quit smoking, as this affect the levels of bacteria within your vagina.

Are thrush and BV the same thing?

Thrush and BV are two different conditions that can both affect the vagina, causing a change to your vaginal discharge.

Thrush is caused by a yeast fungus, which lives in and on your body and usually causes no harm. However, when the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina is disrupted, this fungus can multiply, resulting in a yeast infection.

The key symptoms of thrush are:

  • Thick, white vaginal discharge with a consistency similar to cottage cheese
  • Itching and irritation around the vagina
  • Pain when urinating or during sex

Unlike BV, thrush can’t be treated with antibiotics – instead, the treatment is antifungal medication. If you’re experiencing any new symptoms like those described above, it’s always recommended that you see your GP or go to a sexual health clinic.

Can my partner catch BV from me?

You can’t pass BV to a male partner, but you can pass it to a female partner during sex. For this reason, if you’re diagnosed with BV and you have a same-sex partner, they may need treatment too.

You’re also more likely to get BV in the first place if you’re sexually active.

How can I get rid of vaginal odours?

It’s completely natural for the vagina to have an odour, but it shouldn’t be very strong or unpleasant. If you notice that your vagina has a strong odour, then you should seek medical advice.

Keep in mind that the natural smell of a healthy vagina doesn’t need to be covered up with fragrances. In fact, by over-washing and using scented products around your vagina, you’re more likely to acquire BV and end up with smelly discharge!