What is it?
Bacterial vaginosis, also known as BV, is a common cause of an abnormal discharge in women of child-bearing age. It is estimated that one in 10 women will get BV at some point in their life. It is not a sexually transmitted infection.
What are the Symptoms?
The most common symptom of bacterial vaginosis is an unusual vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy smell, particularly after sex. You may also notice a change in the colour and consistency of your discharge, such as becoming greyish-white and thin and watery.
However, about 50% of women with bacterial vaginosis do not have any symptoms.
BV does not usually cause any soreness or itching.
What is it caused by?
BV occurs when bacteria that normally live in the vagina in low numbers multiply and cause symptoms. This can happen if you:
- use perfumed bubble bath or soap
- douche or use vaginal deodorants.
- have an IUD (contraceptive device)
- are sexually active or have a new sexual partner (but women who have not had sex can also get BV)
Having sex can cause BV to develop because the semen in the vagina may change the acid level and then the bacteria can multiply and symptoms develop. Men do not get BV and it is not a sexually transmitted infection.
How do you get tested for BV?
If you are worried that you may have BV visit your GP or a sexual health service. The nurse or doctor may use a swab to collect a sample of the discharge from your vagina.
How is it treated?
BV is easily treated with antibiotic tablets, either given as a single dose or spread over 5 to 7 days. Vaginal gels and creams are also available.
If you have a same-sex partner who has symptoms then they may also need treatment.
Can BV recur?
It is common for BV to come back and in most women recurrences will respond to the standard treatments.
If you are having more than 4 recurrences in a year then longer courses of preventive treatment are available. Your GP or sexual health clinic will be able to advise you on this.
What can happen if it is not treated?
For most women there are no complications from BV if it is not treated and it may go away by itself. However, the majority of women with symptoms prefer to have treatment.
If you are found to have BV and have no symptoms then treatment is usually not needed.
Bacterial vaginosis in pregnancy
If you develop bacterial vaginosis in pregnancy, there's a small chance of complications such as premature birth or miscarriage. However, BV causes no problems in the majority of pregnancies.
Treatment can be given in pregnancy if you have symptoms. However, it is unclear if there is any benefit from treating pregnant women who do not have symptoms. Your doctor or midwife will be able to advise you on this.
Speak to a GP or your midwife if you're pregnant and your vaginal discharge changes.
How can I best prevent infection?
Avoiding the following can reduce the chances of BV developing:
- Using perfumed bubble bath, soap or vaginal deodorants.
- Using strong detergents or fabric softeners when washing your underwear or towels
- Douching (cleaning the vagina with water or medicated fluid) is NOT recommended. Not only can it cause conditions such as BV or thrush, it can be associated with an increased risk of serious infection in the uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes.
Persistent BV may be associated with the presence of an IUD (contraceptive device) and an alternative method of contraception may need to be considered if there is no response to treatment.
Testing and treatment is available from:
If you wish to be seen or are seeking sexual health advice:
Mon - Fri 9.00am - 4.00pm
- General Practitioners
Tel: 0345 702 3687 for other appointments