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The Most Common Vaginal Infection Isn't What You Think

Kathleen Ramas is one of the many Digital Editorial Interns for SheKnows. She is a communications student at Fordham University and the Editor-in-Chief of FLASH Magazine, Fordham’s fashion magazine. She’s a proud musician, Game of Throne...

Bacterial Vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection in women of reproductive age

All right, let’s talk. So we're all familiar with the usual below-the-belt culprits, namely yeast infections and UTIs. But what if your gynecologist tells you that you have bacterial vaginosis? Although it's the most common vaginal infection in women of reproductive age, it's not one that comes up frequently in conversation.

We can bet that the first things that come to mind when you think about bacterial vaginosis aren’t necessarily pleasant. And before long, your brain is probably buzzing with thoughts of sexually transmitted infections, the terrible imagery that comes along with it, medication and some potentially awful long-term effects. And without that much dialogue surrounding the topic, it has left the term shrouded in mystery.

More: 6 Causes of Vaginal Odor, Because Yes, It Happens to All of Us

But have no fear. We’re here to debunk the mythology surrounding BV by bringing you a roundup of the top five things you ought to know about bacterial vaginosis (before having your own full-blown freak-out).

Causes and symptoms

A lot of women are confused about what BV actually is, and many are led to generalize it as another STI to try to avoid. But that’s not the case.

According to Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, BV is “caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that disrupts the delicate pH balance of the vagina.” So basically, it’s an accumulation of germs that change the optimal operating conditions in your vagina.

Symptoms of BV include itching, burning, redness and swelling of your vagina and a yellow/gray/sometimes greenish-tinted discharge. It can also be accompanied by that cliché “fishy” smell. That smell is often intensified because of semen, so that may be why it seems a bit more noticeable to you — or your partner — after sex.

More: Sigh, Your Vagina Will Probably Rumble With One of These Issues Eventually

For some women, the smell can be a greater concern than the other symptoms, as it can be a huge source of discomfort or embarrassment. But in the same vein, symptoms aren’t always guaranteed and a woman with BV may not experience any of these things at all.

How is it transmitted?

The most common misconception about BV is that it is transmitted sexually. But BV is developed by specific bacterial conditions in the vagina, not by contracting it from another person.

In fact, even women who aren’t sexually active can get BV. Yet while it isn’t transferred this way, there is an increase in risk factors when certain things do occur (i.e., having unprotected sex, new sexual partners, douching, etc.).

Dr. Mary Jane Minkin from Yale University explains that “what is does do is make it easier for other bad guys to cause problems — bad guys such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.” BV creates the perfect environment for actual STIs to thrive in, so it makes your vagina much more prone to serious infections.

Other risks to keep an eye on

Some other increased risks that occur due to BV besides vulnerability to STIs include affected pregnancy conditions — making it more likely for pregnant women to deliver a baby either preterm and/or with a low birth weight.

It is also important to note that after treating BV, it is possible — and normal — for it to recur frequently. Dr. Katherine J. Lee, OB-GYN at the Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, says that “studies have shown that 30 percent of patients can have their symptoms come back within three months.”

More: 4 Common Causes of Vaginal Itching And How to Get Relief

Treatment

Treatment for BV is commonly administered via antibiotics called metronidazole or clindamycin. These medications can be administered either orally with pills or vaginally with creams. However, it is also possible that it can go away entirely on its own with time. Some doctors say that women will still continue to visit because the symptoms remain bothersome or irritating.

Always visit your doctor

When in doubt, never hesitate to visit your doctor with your questions and concerns. With the immense amount of overlap between symptoms of STIs and other bacteria-related problems that can happen in your vagina, there’s always a lot of confusion and difficulty in self-diagnosing and figuring out what’s really going on.

The best way to combat that is to make an appointment with your gynecologist to get the most accurate — and comforting — response, rather than racking your brain because of the oh-so-infinite knowledge (cough, cough) of WebMD.

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