The vagina naturally contains a mix of many different bacteria. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) occurs when the number of certain bacteria increases, affecting the balance of chemicals in the vagina. Women with bacterial vaginosis appear to have a shortage of lactobacilli, which allows other types of bacteria to grow.
It is not clear why this change in balance occurs; and for uncertain reasons, the condition appears to be more common in black women than in other ethnic groups. However, your risk of developing bacterial vaginosis is increased if you:
- are sexually active, particularly if you have a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners
- use an intrauterine device (IUD) – a contraceptive device that fits inside the womb
- use scented soaps, bubble baths or vaginal deodorant
- perform vaginal douching (cleaning out the vagina).
Around 50% women with bacterial vaginosis have no symptoms. The main symptom to look out for is an unusual vaginal white or grey discharge that may have a strong fishy smell, particularly after sexual intercourse.
If you notice any abnormal discharge from your vagina, especially if you are pregnant, it is important that you see your GP or visit a sexual health clinic to dismiss other infections and prevent complications. A small sample of the vaginal discharge may be taken for examination in the laboratory.
Bacterial vaginosis is not a serious concern for the vast majority of women; unless the symptoms develop in pregnancy in which case there is an increased risk of pregnancy-related complications, such as premature birth or miscarriage.
Bacterial vaginosis is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and there is no evidence to suggest the bacteria affects male sexual partners.
Bacterial vaginosis can usually be successfully treated using a short course of antibiotics taken orally or applied topically. Unfortunately it is common for the condition to re-occur.
As the cause bacterial vaginosis is not fully understood, it is not possible to completely prevent it. You may be able to lower your risk of developing the condition by:
- avoiding the use of scented or perfumed soaps, antiseptic bath liquids and vaginal deodorant
- vaginal douching (washing inside the vagina with clean warm water)