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Diseases & Conditions

Bacterial Vaginosis

What is bacterial vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common infection that occurs in a woman's vagina. Bacterial vaginosis does not usually cause serious health problems, except in pregnant women.

What causes BV?

Health care providers do not yet fully understand what causes BV. Bacteria are a natural part of the vagina. For some reason, something upsets the normal balance of bacteria. Some of the bacteria grow too rapidly and cause infection.

What are the symptoms of BV?

Unfortunately, almost 50 percent of the women who have bacterial vaginosis do not have any symptoms.

Common symptoms of BV include:

  • White or discolored discharge
  • Discharge that smells "fishy"
  • "Fishy" smell that is strongest after sex

Other symptoms can include:

  • Itchy vagina
  • Sore vagina

Because BV has symptoms that are similar to other infections, it is important that you visit your health care provider if you think you have an infection in your vagina.

Who can get BV?

Any woman can get BV. The infection is most common in women between the ages of 18 and 44. BV is most common in sexually active women, although sexual transmission of BV has never been proven. Women who are not engaging in sex can also get BV. You may have a higher risk of getting BV if you:

  • Have many sex partners
  • Have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

How can I know if I have BV?

Your health care provider can tell you if you have BV. He or she will examine you and will take a sample of fluid from your vagina. The fluid is viewed under a microscope. In most cases, your health care provider can tell right away if you have BV.

How is BV treated?

Bacterial vaginosis is treated using medicines that kill the infection. The most common medicine ordered for BV is called metronidazole. Common product names for this medicine are Flagyl® and Protostat®. Metronidazole may be given as a pill that is taken by mouth. It may also be given as a vaginal gel.

Does the medication have side effects?

Yes. You may have:

  • Upset stomach
  • Metal taste in your mouth
  • Heartburn

Don't drink alcohol while you are taking metronidazole. You can become very sick to your stomach. Call your health care provider if you have these or any other side effects.

Can I treat myself for BV?

No. Bacterial vaginosis can only be treated with medicines ordered by your health care provider. You cannot purchase over-the-counter products to treat BV. Products for douching and treating yeast infections will not cure BV.

Should I be treated for BV if I am pregnant?

Yes, but not during the first three months of pregnancy. Some studies have shown that having the infection during pregnancy may cause early labor and premature birth.

Tell your health care provider if you are pregnant. Also let your health care provider know if you think that you might be pregnant. You and your health care provider should discuss whether or not the infection should be treated.

How can I protect myself from BV?

Ways to prevent BV are not yet known. Female hygiene products like douches and deodorants will not cure the infection. These products may make the infection worse.

To maintain your overall good health:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Exercise
  • Manage stress levels
  • Get a pelvic exam as directed by your provider.

When should I call my doctor?

You should call your health care provider any time if:

  • Your vaginal discharge changes color, becomes heavier, or smells different
  • You notice itching, burning, swelling, or soreness around the vagina

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/21/2010...#3963