Bacterial vaginosis

Many women who think they have a yeast infection may actually have another condition: bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV, which affects about 10% of women and up to 30% of pregnant women, is the most common cause of vaginal discharge in women. It occurs when certain bacteria in the vagina overgrow, leading to vaginal itching, burning, a white or grey discharge, and an unpleasant fishy odour. Some women with BV do not have any symptoms.

We don't know exactly how women get BV, but it's believed that something happens to upset the normal environment of the vagina. Normally, there is a balance between good and harmful bacteria in the vagina, and when something happens to decrease the number of good bacteria, the harmful bacteria can overgrow, leading to BV.

What increases a woman's chance of BV? Certain factors such as douching, and using an IUD (intrauterine device) for birth control, may increase the risk of BV. The role of sexual activity in transmitting BV is not clear, and it is not generally considered to be a sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known by the older term STD). However, having new sex partners or multiple sex partners can increase a woman's risk of BV, although it's not fully understood why.

BV can do more than just cause unpleasant symptoms. It can also increase a woman's risk of:

  • becoming infected with HIV if she is exposed to the virus
  • giving HIV to a sex partner (for women already infected with HIV)
  • having a premature birth (for pregnant women with BV)
  • having a baby with a low birth weight
  • having an infection of the placenta during pregnancy
  • having an infection of the womb after pregnancy
  • getting a more serious infection, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, after having an IUD inserted, having a biopsy of your uterine lining, or having procedures to treat polyps, cancer, or unwanted bleeding
  • becoming infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea

Your doctor will give you a physical exam and perform some lab tests to diagnose you with BV. BV can be treated with antibiotics. Although male sex partners don't need to be treated, the doctor may recommend treatment for female sex partners.

To reduce your risk of BV, avoid douching, and limit your number of sex partners. Since BV can increase your risk of other health problems, be sure to see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment if you notice symptoms of vaginal discharge, itching, burning, or discomfort.

BV can cause serious complications if it's not properly treated. Therefore, it's very important to visit your doctor for diagnosis and treatment when you have symptoms of vaginal discharge, itching, or irritation.

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