Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that may cause pain, itching, burning during urination, discharge and a strong fish-like odor in women of all ages, especially those in their childbearing years. While BV is considered an STI and is most common among women who are sexually active, there are other ways a woman can contract BV.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in three women will contract BV−“a silent epidemic”−during their lifetime. BV is associated with the imbalance of bacteria naturally present in the vagina, but the cause is not fully understood.
BV generally occurs when “good” bacteria growth is disrupted and overtaken by excessive “harmful” bacteria growth. Researchers know that sexual intercourse can change the balance of vaginal bacteria, but are unsure how or why this happens. If you have BV, it is easily treatable with antibiotics prescribed by a healthcare provider.
Any woman—even those who have never had sex—can get BV. Your risks could be increased by using an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control; not using condoms during sexual intercourse, especially sex with multiple partners; natural changes in hormone levels due to pregnancy, breastfeeding or menopause; and using douches, spermicides, or vaginal sprays, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Contrary to some old myths, you can’t get BV from a toilet seat, swimming pools, bedding or touching items around you. However, simply using douche or vaginal deodorant sprays dramatically raises your risk of BV by removing some of the natural protective bacteria that protects you from infection. Keep your vagina and anus clean by washing everyday with a mild soap. When you go to the bathroom, wipe from your vagina to your anus and keep the area cool by avoiding tight pants and skip pantyhose in the summer. Opt to wearing cotton or cotton-lined underpants instead.
Some women have BV but no symptoms. However, if you experience an abnormal white or gray vaginal discharge with an unpleasant fishy odor, especially after sex, or vaginal burning, itching or irritation, see your doctor or healthcare provider immediately, especially if you are currently pregnant. A simple test can determine if you have BV.
Left untreated, BV can cause pregnancy complications that may result in delivering a premature or low birth weight baby (under five pounds), and raise your risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), HIV, or new incidences of chlamydia and gonorrhea, reports the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Women with HIV who get BV are also more likely to pass HIV to a sexual partner.
While it might be difficult, always talk openly and honest with your healthcare provider and sex partner(s) about any STIs you or your partner(s) have had. For more information, call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 800-232-4636.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD Facts. Accessed 22 Sept. 2011 online at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/bv/stdfact-bacterial-vaginosis.htm.
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Bacterial Vaginosis Fact Sheet Accessed 22 Sept. 2011 online at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/bacterial-vaginosis.cfm
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Gynecologic Problems FAQ. Accessed 22 Sept. 2011 online at: http://www.acog.org/publications/faq/faq028.cfm