What Is Bacterial Vaginosis?

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Bacterial Vaginosis or BV is an incredibly common vaginal infection, with up to 1 in 3 women having had the infection at some point in their lifetime. 50% of women will experience no symptoms at all [1], where as the other half may experience some unusual vaginal discharge. Now for those of you squirming at the word ‘discharge’ remember it is normal, natural and nothing to be afraid of! 

Problems with BV can begin to arise when the infection causes an odour or smell that is particularly noticeable after sex. This can cause embarrassment and discomfort for women. Because BV is so often symptom-less it can get confused with other conditions such as thrush, meaning a lot of women don’t get treatment.

Without treatment BV can be unpleasant, but even a long term infection is not known to cause any other health issues. If you notice a change in your discharge, pain or itching around the genitals or changes to your period it is best to contact you doctor for a check up. You can also speak to a pharmacist either in person or online using our Ask a Pharmacist service!

Is Bacterial Vaginosis an STI?

The quick answer? No.

Despite common misconception, BV is not an STI. Part of this myth comes from the fact that BV can often be triggered by sexual intercourse, and the infection can be passed between women during sex. Although we might not like to think about it our body is teeming with bacteria, and vaginas are no different. Sex changes the natural balance of ‘good’ and ‘harmful’ bacteria in the vagina, it is a fine balance so often only a small change can trigger a ‘harmful bacteria’ BV infection. This is why women often find that intercourse with a new partner can cause BV [2].

Another reason BV and STIs share a platform is because BV can make it more likely you will contract an STI such as Chlamydia or Herpes. Although the reason for this is not fully understood, it is believed that BV can upset the PH of your vagina and make it more acidic so that your natural defence against these kind of infections is compromised.

What Causes Bacterial Vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis is caused by a change in the natural balance of your vagina, and the cause of this is not always fully understood. Some common triggers include:

  • Being sexually active (but women who have not had sex can also get BV)
  • A change of partner
  • Having an IUD (contraception device)
  • Using perfumed products in or around your vagina

Bacterial vaginosis is generally harmless but can be recurring and unpleasant. The common symptoms include:

  • Thin, grey, white or green vaginal discharge
  • Foul-smelling “fishy” vaginal odour
  • Vaginal itching
  • Burning during urination

Misconceptions and Media Surrounding Bacterial Vaginosis

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In recent years ‘vagina-health’ has had a bit of a makeover. It is no longer something talked about in hushed tones in gynaecology waiting rooms but loudly professed in Instagram posts about jade eggs and vaginal steaming (we aren’t naming any names Gwenyth Paltrow). We think conversation and awareness around women’s health in general is a fantastic step forward, but sadly there are many misconceptions surrounding BV. 

Some would say that the bacterial imbalance that causes a BV infection can be treated with a ‘detox’, removing the imbalances and toxins through douching or steaming. Not only does this risk allergic reactions and burns, it also has no scientific reasoning behind it. In fact many gynaecologists confirm that these methods of reducing vaginal discharge may actually lead to more infections.[3]

The vagina itself is a miraculous self cleaning machine, but sometimes even the most technical pieces of machinery need an MOT. Using non-perfumed soap and warm water ‘down there’ is a good way to reduce your chances of BV, as well as avoiding douching, wearing cotton underwear and reducing the number of sexual partners you have [4]. Generally the infection will pass on it’s own, though some women prefer using antibiotic medication for repeat infections such as Metronizole to get rid of the infection quickly and easily. 

Why Women Don’t Talk About Bacterial Vaginosis

Despite all the recent media attention BV is still an embarrassing and taboo subject for many women. Although not a dangerous condition, most women with recurrent BV report that it has a ‘moderate to severe impact on their lives’ [5]. This is mostly due to feeling self conscious, ashamed and having a lack of control over their own bodies. Women who were part of a 2013 study were quoted in saying:

‘Have I lost a tampon up there?…Did I change my soap? I am confused. I was just like ‘What have I done to do this?’ (Participant 26, age 24)

‘…I don’t feel like I know what it is, what is the behaviour or the action to know what is causing it so I don’t know why I’m getting it’ (Participant 20, age 23)

How to Get Rid of Bacterial Vaginosis

It is important to remember that this condition is incredibly common, and very easy to treat with the help of medication. There are many over the counter options such as creams and gels which work to reduce symptoms and re-balance your PH. For repeat infections and more serious infections often oral antibiotics are the best course of action. We would recommend Metronidazole tablets as a first line defence against the bacteria that causes the BV infection, they are great to have on hand ready for whenever an infection may appear. Once you have BV you are much more likely to have a repeat infection within 3 months [1], meaning having a supply of Metronidazole at the ready can prevent the infection before it becomes too unpleasant.

Where You Can Get Bacterial Vaginosis Treatment

You can get BV treatment from you GP or local pharmacy. If you would like to avoid the awkward conversation and wait time it is also available online from e-Surgery, you can order antibiotic Metronidazole tablets with a simple 2 minute health questionnaire. This insures you are getting the correct medication. You will then receive your medication in the post!

All in all, BV is nothing to be ashamed of. Remember if you have any questions you can always use our free Ask a Pharmacist service for free, confidential healthcare advice.

Sources

  1. 1 in 3 women have BV: Bacterial Vaginosis Fact Sheet | NHS
  2. Bacterial Vaginosis CDC Fact Sheet | CDC
  3. What is Vaginal Steaming and Should You Try It? | Women’s Health Magazine
  4. A-Z Health Topics: Bacterial Vaginosis Facts | Women’s Health.GOV
  5. The Burden of Bacterial Vaginosis: Women’s Experience of the Physical, Emotional, Sexual and Social Impact of Living with Recurrent Bacterial Vaginosis | NCBI

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Intimate Health Sexual Health Sexual Health Resources Women's Health

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