Bacterial vaginosis is like the lesser-known cousin of thrush and cystitis. But here's a fun fact for you: at some point in their lives, most women will have encountered some kind of vaginal discomfort (be it itching or atypical discharge) which could be caused by bacterial vaginosis (also known as BV).
It’s common not to have heard about bacterial vaginosis until you notice an issue with your own discharge and start googling the symptoms. The effects of this condition aren't usually dangerous to your health, but it often goes without being talked about by a lot of people. This is because one of the most noticeable symptoms is a strong-smelling odour which, as you can imagine, might cause embarrassment or lower self-confidence (not to mention your libido).
Given the lack of BV-awareness, we asked Anna Druet, a researcher at period-tracking app Clue, to share some info about BV. Which means you can consider yourself an expert (ish) when you've finished reading.
What is bacterial vaginosis?
Bacterial vaginosis (or BV) happens when the normal balance of vaginal bacteria is disrupted, being replaced by more bacteria that doesn’t need oxygen to grow. The most common type of BV-causing bacteria is called Gardnerella (not to be confused with the STI gonorrhea, just in case you were panicking), which creates different byproducts and causes environmental changes in your vagina, leading to the unpleasant symptoms listed below.
Because of the changes, an immune response is also triggered in the vagina which can make the vagina’s naturally protective mucus less effective, making the reproductive tract more prone to contracting STIs. Naaaht good.
Signs you could have bacterial vaginosis:
● Unpleasant or 'fishy' odour
● Atypical discharge
● Burning during urination
Causes of bacterial vaginosis
The exact causes of bacterial vaginosis are still unclear, but it's thought the natural vaginal environment can be disrupted by both internal factors (eg. antibiotics, diet) and external factors (eg. soap, semen). It's not fully understood by doctors yet why one person gets recurrent BV in a particular situation when another doesn’t. Some factors which are thought to increase risk, however, include douching and prolonged or irregular uterine bleeding.
People who have prolonged bleeding as a side effect of a new IUD, for example, may be more likely to have BV, but more research is needed. Recurrent BV may tend to pop up around the time of of your period for the same reason.
Sexual activity is also associated with a higher risk of BV. One study showed that around 85% of people who get BV are sexually active, even though it's not deemed an STI. Specific risk factors may include new or multiple sex partners, a lack of condom use, vaginal intercourse and receiving anal sex before vaginal intercourse without a new protective barrier.
A newly released study on bacterial vaginosis has revealed a link between oral sex and the infection. The research, published in the journal PLoS Biology, suggests that oral sex may create the right 'environment' for BV to occur down there. One common type of mouth bacteria in particular - fusobacterium nucleatum, that's linked with plaque and gum disease - was found in the research to aid the growth of other bacteria involved in the onset of BV, which leads experts to suggest oral sex could be a potential trigger. Because how else is mouth bacteria getting inside the vagina?!
How common is bacterial vaginosis?
BV is the most common vaginal complaint among women between of a childbearing age, but can occur in women of any age.
How to treat and prevent bacterial vaginosis:
Vaginal bacteria can sometimes get out of balance and then improve on its own. To prevent BV, start by limiting your risk factors. Use condoms, don’t douche and keep soap away from your vulva and vagina (some experts say non-foaming unscented soap is okay on the vulva, and others say stick to water). Don’t use any products with scents or perfumes in that area, and limit your bubble baths.
Treatment of BV can range from antibiotics and antiseptics, to medications to restore acidity, to probiotics. Some treatments are available over the counter, but others will need a prescription, so it's best to talk to your doctor if you get symptoms.
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