Overview of Bacterial Vaginosis

How to Prevent and Treat This Infection

pigeon-toed woman
Getty/Photolibrary/Eric O'Connell. Getty/Photolibrary/Eric O'Connell

What is Bacterial Vaginosis?

Vaginosis or vaginitis is an inflammation that occurs in the vagina, also affecting the urethra, bladder, and skin in the genital area. It includes several strains of germ that cause bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis. Many women mistakenly believe that yeast infections are the most common type of vaginal infection but, in fact, bacterial vaginosis is the most frequently occurring vaginal infection, affecting from 10 to 64 percent of the population at any given time.​

Although treatment is available that quickly cures this infection, if left untreated, it can increase a woman's risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or endometritis cervicitis, cause pregnancy complications, lead to post-operative infections, and more.

Bacterial vaginosis occurs most during the reproductive years, although women of all ages are susceptible to this infection.

What Causes Bacterial Vaginosis?

The primary causes of bacterial vaginosis include an overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria and the Gardnerella organism. The healthy vagina includes a small amount of these bacteria and organisms. When the vaginal balance is disrupted by the overgrowth of these bacteria, another protective bacterium, lactobacilli, is unable to adequately perform its normal function. Lactobacilli normally provide a natural disinfectant (similar to hydrogen peroxide) that helps maintain the healthy and normal balance of microorganisms in the vagina.

E. coli, which is a normal inhabitant of the rectum, can also cause bacterial vaginitis if it is spread to the vaginal area.​

Other factors include hot weather, poor health, poor hygiene, use of an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control, and routine douching.

Risk of bacterial vaginosis increases with menopause and in women with diabetes, as well as with women whose resistance is lowered due to other conditions.

A report published in Women's Health Weekly indicates that multiple sex partners may increase a woman's risk of bacterial vaginosis, although African-American women with only one partner still have a high prevalence of infection.

What Are the Symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis?

The most obvious sign of bacterial infection is an unpleasant, foul, sometimes fishy odor. Itching and/or burning sometimes accompany bacterial infections, but not aways.

Many times, women are unaware they are infected until they are diagnosed during a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear.

It is important not to douche during the few days preceding a visit to your gynecologist, as douching can hide signs of infection and may make bacterial vaginosis worse.

What is the Treatment for Bacterial Vaginosis?

The good news is that treatment is relatively simple and effective once a proper diagnosis is made. It usually consists of three to seven nights of vaginal cream. An oral antibiotic treatment is also sometimes prescribed, and may be available if you request it from your physician.

Although your symptoms may disappear before you finish your medication, it's important you complete your medication exactly as directed by your physician.

Preventing Vaginal Infections

  • Always wipe from front to back after bowel movements to prevent E. coli from the rectum from entering the vagina.
  • Douching is never a good idea. Douching may disrupt the fragile balance of natural organisms in the vagina, which may lead to bacterial or yeast infections and may also cause the spread of infection up into the reproductive tract, where it can do damage.
  • Keep the vaginal area clean and dry. Wash before and after sex with an antibacterial cleanser and thoroughly dry the vaginal area to prevent moisture from creating a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Avoid tight clothing and always wear white cotton underpants that help absorb moisture and allow air to circulate.
  • Avoid scented or treated toilet paper, personal hygiene products, perfumes, spermicides, and harsh soaps or detergents if the vaginal area is irritated.
  • Practice safe sex! Always use condoms to prevent STDs or other vaginal infections unless you are in a long-term monogamous relationship.
  • Diaphragms, cervical caps, and medication applicators should be thoroughly cleaned after each use.

Remember, if you experience signs of a vaginal infection, it is important that a diagnosis be made by your physician. Most vaginal infections are not yeast infections! Self-treatment with over-the-counter remedies for yeast infection will not cure a bacterial infection and may increase your risk of complications.

Continue Reading