A vaginal discharge and itching are signs of bacterial vaginosis (BV). Learn the health consequences of this condition and why you should not ignore it.
The term vaginitis means inflammation of the vagina. It can be caused by several things — including a yeast or bacterial infection, an allergic reaction (to a douche, for example), and reduced estrogen levels after menopause. But the most common cause of vaginitis is bacterial vaginosis (BV).
BV affects almost 30 percent of American females between the ages of 14 and 49, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although it’s treatable, many women don’t know they have BV, or they mistake signs of the infection for something else. By getting tested and treated for the condition, you’ll not only get relief from symptoms —- you’ll also be protecting your health.
Causes of bacterial vaginosis
Researchers don’t know exactly how and why some women get bacterial vaginosis. Although it’s not a sexually transmitted disease (STD), there is a clear association between the common gynecologic infection and being sexually active. That’s because having a new sex partner, or multiple sex partners, can upset the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina, the CDC explains.
Taking antibiotics or using an intrauterine device (IUD) also sometimes disrupts the optimum balance of bacteria in the vagina and increases the likelihood of bacterial vaginosis, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
You can’t catch the infection from toilet seats, bedding, or swimming pools, either, and it can’t spread to men. However, BV can spread via sex between women in same sex relationships.
While there are no known strategies that absolutely prevent the condition, being celibate or monogamous and not douching may lower the risk, the CDC notes.
Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis
Not all women with BV have obvious signs of the infection. However, bacterial vaginitis often causes these symptoms:
- A thin vaginal discharge (white or gray)
- Burning or pain inside the vagina
- A burning sensation when you urinate
- A strong odor, usually described as fish-like, especially after sex
- Itching inside and around the outside of the vagina
Bacterial vaginosis needs treatment
While it’s not life-threatening, and the symptoms are primarily annoying and sometimes embarrassing, that doesn’t mean BV doesn’t carry some dangers.
When there’s a normal balance of bacteria in the vagina, a type of bacteria called lactobacilli produce chemicals that help protect your body from STD infections. But when a woman has BV, there’s typically a lack of lactobacilli.
That’s why, if left undiagnosed and untreated, bacterial vaginosis increases your risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) points out.
What’s more, if you become pregnant, the infection increases the risk of having a baby born prematurely or with an abnormally low birth weight.
The condition can also cause emotional turmoil, including anxiety and embarrassment about symptoms. A national survey by ASHA, in conjunction with the Harris Poll, queried women 18 to 49 with BV and found almost 70 percent were self-conscious about symptoms associated with the infection. Almost 80 percent avoided being intimate with their partner.
Bottom line? Get tested and get treated for BV
Talk to your doctor about any concerns or symptoms you have that could be caused by bacterial vaginosis. To diagnosis the condition, a doctor examines the vagina for signs of discharge and tests a sample of vaginal fluid, the CDC explains.
Although the gynecologic infection will sometimes resolve without treatment, symptomatic cases should be checked out by a doctor and treated with a full course of antibiotics to clear up symptoms and reduce the risk of contracting STDs.
March 15, 2019
Janet O’Dell, RN