Different types of bacteria live naturally in the vagina; normally the bacteria present in the largest numbers are lactic acid bacteria. Lactic acid bacteria produce acidifying lactic acid which maintains the normal low pH of the vagina, protecting against infection. If the numbers of lactic acid bacteria are reduced, pH levels rise, encouraging the growth of other bacteria. This can result in embarrassing odour, abnormal discharge and discomfort in the vagina which are very common problems.
The growth of the unwanted bacteria is a condition known as Bacterial Vaginosis or BV. Experts estimate that at least 1 in 3 women, and perhaps most women, will develop BV at some point in their life.
BV is associated with:
- Prolonged menstruation (your period).
- Use of IntraUterine Devices (IUD’s, commonly known as the coil).
- Frequent douching (washing out unwanted organisms along with the normal harmless bacteria).
- Perfumed intimate products.
- Sex without a condom (semen has a higher pH level than the vagina).
- Other causes can include having a new sexual partner, multiple sexual partners, same sex sexual partners, the menopause (during and/or directly after) and hormone imbalances.
It is commonly thought that Thrush is the most common type of vaginal infection, but Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is actually the most frequently occurring condition in women of childbearing age, and is about twice as common as Thrush.
BV in Pregnancy:
BV is not normally considered to be harmful in otherwise healthy, non-pregnant women. However, it can cause significant complications in pregnant women such as:
- Late miscarriage.
- Preterm birth.
- Premature rupture of membranes (waters breaking early).
- Low birth weight.
You should consult your doctor if you have any symptoms of a vaginal infection during pregnancy.
Tackling the problem:
There are a number of different options available:
- Your GP may prescribe antibiotics, either orally (a tablet) or topically (a cream to be inserted into the vagina). Antibiotics are very effective at curing BV, however the condition usually returns 4-6 weeks later. Some antibiotics kill the healthy lactic acid bacteria normally present in the vagina as well as the unwanted bacteria. It can be difficult to re-establish these healthy bacteria.
- Alternative remedies, such as replacement of lactic acid bacteria, acidifiers, or yogurt are used. However, their effectiveness is limited as they do not stay in the vagina for long enough. Other remedies such as boric acid and hydrogen peroxide have also been used, but there is no robust evidence that these are effective.
- Balance Activ™Vaginal Gel is a unique product containing both lactic acid to immediately restore the natural pH of the vagina, and glycogen to promote the healthy growth of the normal bacteria. To find out more click here.
What If I Don't Do Anything?
The symptoms may resolve without you doing anything, and it is considered unusual for BV to cause complications in otherwise healthy, non-pregnant women.
However, the significance of this condition has probably been underestimated. Recent research has shown that women with BV are at an increased risk of contracting pelvic inflammatory disease and certain Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s), in particular it has been associated with an increased risk of catching and transmitting HIV.
When To See Your Doctor
You should consult your doctor if:
- Your symptoms worsen.
- You experience pain.
- The discomfort does not cease. The discharge is blood-stained.
- The discharge occurs during the menopause.
Your doctor can take a swab sample from your vagina which will be sent to the laboratory for analysis. Other tests may also be done to rule out other causes of vaginal discharge. The results will confirm whether you have BV, or another condition. Your doctor can then advise you on the best course of treatment.