Health conditions

Bacterial vaginosis

What is bacterial vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis is a condition of the vagina when there are too many of one kind of bacteria, mainly Gardnerella vaginalis. It’s normally harmless, but can lead to unpleasant symptoms or problems with pregnancy.

Note: many other types of bacteria live in the vagina and rarely cause any problems.

How do you get bacterial vaginosis?

You can get bacterial vaginosis without sexual contact, but it is often linked with sexual activity.

Signs and symptoms

The main symptom is a grey discharge from the vagina with a fishy or musty smell. The smell can get stronger after sex or during your period. Some women can have bacterial vaginosis but have no symptoms at all.

Bacterial vaginosis is usually harmless and often goes away by itself. However, if you are pregnant, bacterial vaginosis can cause early labour, so see your doctor.

How do I know I have bacterial vaginosis?

If you think you have bacterial vaginosis, see your doctor, who will check your vagina for discharge.

The doctor may send a sample to a laboratory for more tests because the signs of bacterial vaginosis can be similar to other infections, such as chlamydia or other sexually transmitted infections. Some of these infections are more serious and/or need a different treatment – for example, the treatment for bacterial vaginosis will not cure chlamydia.

Treatment of bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis can be treated by taking a course of antibiotics or by applying a cream. It is very important to finish the whole course of antibiotics. Avoid alcohol during the treatment and for 3 days afterwards as it can affect the antibiotics and make you vomit. Make sure you take all the medicine.

Don’t have sex until after you have completed the full course of treatment.

If you’re pregnant, you may need to see a specialist.

If you do not have symptoms or the symptoms are not causing you problems then treatment is not necessary. Your sexual partner doesn’t usually need treatment if you have bacterial vaginosis.

If left untreated

Bacterial vaginosis may cause infections in the cervix, uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes, which is called pelvic inflammatory disease. This can lead to infertility (so you can’t have a baby).

How can bacterial vaginosis be prevented?

You can reduce the risks of getting bacterial vaginosis by following this advice:

  • After going to the toilet, always wipe gently, from the front to the back, to stop bacteria from getting into the vagina.
  • Using pads instead of tampons can help, because tampons can change the normal balance of vaginal bacteria.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222.
  • Call the Sexual Health Helpline (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers).
  • Contact your local sexual health clinic (external site).

Remember

  • Bacterial vaginosis is usually harmless, but can lead to problems with pregnancy.
  • The condition can be treated with antibiotics.

Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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