The main points
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is caused by a change in the normal balance of vaginal bacteria.
- BV is not considered a sexually transmissible infection, however, it usually only happens in people who are sexually active.
- If you are experiencing a change in your vaginal discharge such as a different or “fishy” odour or it becomes thinner or watery, it is recommended you see a health professional.
- Not all people with BV will experience symptoms.
- Untreated BV that is causing symptoms and is left untreated can cause health complications.
What is bacterial vaginosis (BV)?
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common bacterial infection in the vagina. There are many different types of bacteria that usually live in the vagina. These rarely cause problems. BV occurs when there is a change in the balance of these vaginal bacteria. BV usually only happens in people who are sexually active.
BV can be passed on during sexual contact and sexual activity may make symptoms worse, however, it is not considered a sexually transmissible infection (STI).
How do you get BV?
The reason people get BV is not completely understood. It usually only happens in people who have sex.
You may be more likely to get BV if you:
- have a new sexual partner
- have sex without using barrier protection (external condoms, internal condoms or dams)
- have a sexual partner(s) with a vagina
- douche or clean inside your vagina with water, soap or other products
- are a smoker.
BV can affect anyone with a vagina who is sexually active. It can happen whether your sexual partner/s are the same sex as you or a different sex.
How would I know if I have bacterial vaginosis (BV)?
Many people with BV do not know because they do not have symptoms. Some people may have symptoms such as:
- an unusual “fishy” or sometimes metallic smell from the vagina,
- thin, white/grey discharge (fluid) from the vagina or a change in their normal vaginal discharge,
- irritation or discomfort in the vagina and/or on the vulva,
- difficulty or pain (discomfort, stinging or burning) during urination (peeing),
- pain or discomfort during sex.
What does a test involve?
It is recommended you see a doctor or nurse if you are experiencing any BV symptoms. Treating these yourself may worsen the condition.
The doctor or nurse will usually take a detailed medical and sexual health history. Any information or details you discuss will be kept private and confidential. This will help them to assess the symptoms and guide any tests and possible treatment options.
It can often be helpful if you have symptoms of BV, for a doctor or nurse to do a genital examination and use a cotton swab to collect a sample from your vagina. You can also self-collect a sample from your vagina.
However, diagnosis of BV and treatment options can be determined sometimes just from the history you give and the symptoms you describe.
You may choose to test for other STIs or BBVs at the same time as testing for BV. As sometimes BV can be a symptom caused by an STI. More information on STI and BBV testing
Sexual Health Victoria (SHV) provides expert, confidential STI and BBV testing to Victorians. We also provide expert information, healthcare and support on a range of reproductive and sexual health matters. For more information on SHV clinical services, see our clinics or you can book an appointment online.
How is bacterial vaginosis (BV) treated?
BV symptoms will sometimes resolve (go away) without treatment.
Treatment is recommended if you:
- have symptoms that are bothering you
- are pregnant
- are going to have a procedure on your uterus (womb) or vagina (e.g. abortion, intrauterine device (IUD) insertion, surgery).
BV is treated with antibiotics. This is usually a 5 – 7 day course of oral tablets or a gel or cream you put inside the vagina. Occasionally, you may need a longer course of antibiotics.
With one of the main antibiotics used it is not recommended to drink alcohol while taking the tablets and within 24 hours after you’ve finished taking the course of tablets. You can speak to your doctor or nurse for more information.
If you have symptoms and your doctor or nurse thinks they are most likely to be caused by BV, you may be offered treatment before your test results come back.
BV treatment may also be recommended for your sexual partner(s) if they have a vagina. It may be recommended you avoid sexual contact until you have finished treatment and your symptoms have settled.
If you are having sex and use condoms (external condoms or internal condoms), you may need to avoid sexual contact or use a different contraceptive option during BV treatment. Some creams or gels used to treat BV can affect condoms and cause them to break easily.
Where do I get treatment?
Your doctor or nurse will give you the antibiotics or a script that you can take to the pharmacy. You cannot buy medications to treat BV over the counter without a script.
What if I do not get treated?
BV is very common, and symptoms may resolve without treatment. However, BV can cause health complications if not treated.
Untreated BV with symptoms can increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or complications of medical procedures involving the vagina or uterus (IUD insertion, abortion). If you have symptoms of BV, you can tell the health practitioner who will be able to discuss testing and treatment for BV before having a surgical termination or IUD insertion.
Having BV can increase the risk of getting other sexually transmissible infections.
Untreated BV with symptoms in pregnant people can lead to pregnancy problems. If you have symptoms of BV, you can tell your doctor or midwife who will be able to discuss testing and treatment for BV.
Will bacterial vaginosis (BV) come back?
BV can resolve (go away) with effective treatment. You do not develop any immunity to BV once you’ve had it. However, 50% of people who are treated for BV will get another BV infection within the next 3 months to a year. Research studies are being done to understand why BV comes back in some people and develop better treatments.
Do I need to let my sexual partner/s know I have bacterial vaginosis (BV)?
If you have been diagnosed with BV you are not obligated to let your sexual partner/s know, although you may choose to inform them. Sometimes it is helpful to test and treat your sexual partner/s if they also have a vagina.
What should I do if a sexual partner of mine has been diagnosed with bacterial vaginosis (BV)?
If you have a vagina, you can see a doctor or nurse to get tested and treated, if needed.
Will bacterial vaginosis (BV) affect my pregnancy or breastfeeding?
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding can get BV.
If you experience BV during pregnancy, it can cause serious health complications for both you and the baby. Complications can include:
- Infection in the uterus (womb)
- Passing the infection to the baby (during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding) causing health conditions
- Premature (early) birth.
If you are planning a pregnancy or are already pregnant, testing for bacterial vaginosis is not a routine part of health care. You will only be tested if you have symptoms.
The antibiotic treatments for BV are usually safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding, although one antibiotic may affect the taste of breastmilk. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and considering treatment for BV, ask your doctor, nurse or midwife about the possible effects of the treatment and/or medicine on your baby or breastfeeding.
How can I lower my risk of getting bacterial vaginosis (BV)?
You may be able to lower your risk of getting BV by the following:
- Avoid douching or cleaning inside your vagina as this changes the balance of bacteria that live in the vagina.
- Avoid scented soap, bubble baths and products around the vagina. Use only water or soap-free products to wash around your genitals.
- Using barrier protection (external condoms, internal condoms or dams) correctly during any type of sex (vaginal, anal, oral sex and sex toys).
Barrier protection is not 100% effective at preventing bacterial vaginosis or STIs and BBVs.
Where to get more information and support
- Sexual Health Victoria
- A doctor or nurse
- Your local community health service
- An obstetrician or gynaecologist
- Better Health Channel
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre – a specialist sexual health clinic
- Jean Hailes
- Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health – for culturally and linguistically diverse women.
- The Labia Library
- What’s Going on Down There - an interactive website that can help self-assess vaginal discharge changes
- The Women’s (The Royal Women’s Hospital)
- Equinox – for transgender services
- The Centre Clinic – a safe and friendly general practice, providing care for LGBTI community members as well as specialist medical care for people living with HIV, and expert sexual health screening and treatment.
If you are using the internet for information, only use reliable and reputable websites, such as the ones provided above.