Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a vaginal infection that affects around 16% of women in the US – it's actually the most common vaginal infection diagnosed. And though it's not technically a sexually transmitted disease, women who recently changed sex partners and those who have more than one partner tend to get BV more easily than other women.
Without proper treatment, having bacterial vaginosis during pregnancy can increase your risk of miscarrying in the second trimester and raise your chances of delivering prematurely. It can also lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.
Here’s what you need to know about these concerns, as well as the symptoms and treatment options for BV.
The vagina is full of healthy bacteria, which balance each other out so that no one colony (group of bacteria) takes over. When the vagina is unhealthy or when the normal pH balance is disrupted, one or more colonies can grow in unusual numbers, while others can't grow at all. Infection occurs when a group of bacteria grows at abnormal rates.
Some women get BV more easily and/or more than once. Pregnant women generally have an increased risk, given the vaginal changes that occur while carrying a baby. Chances for developing BV are also higher for those who change sex partners, use feminine hygiene products like douches and sprays, smoke, maintain an unhealthy diet, or have immune system disorders.
About half of women with bacterial vaginosis have no symptoms. The other half might notice itching, odor, burning, or pain.
Doctors say that if there aren't any symptoms, a woman doesn't need treatment. In those non-symptomatic cases, most of the time, the woman's own immune system takes care of the problem and she eventually gets back to a normal balance of bacteria.
If she has symptoms, however, or if she's had a few other BV-related complications (specifically, preterm labor) her healthcare provider will order antibiotics to kill the over-populating bacteria and cure the infection. About 90% of the time, treatment with antibiotics is effective as long as every single pill is taken as directed. Sometimes women have to take more than one course of antibiotics before they get cured.
To get rid of BV for good, you might need to make some lifestyle changes and work on your immune system. That means eating well and exercising, getting plenty of rest, and keeping stress bombs from dropping on your life. Some women swear by probiotics (healthy bacteria taken in supplement form) for keeping all their lady bits in tip-top shape.
The biggest concern regarding BV is that in some cases, the infection can travel up from the vagina to the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes and cause a painful condition called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. If it scars and blocks the tubes, infertility or ectopic pregnancy can occur. But here's the good news: it doesn't happen very often and it's very unusual for a woman to have that level of infection without symptoms. More often, she'll have an itch or pain that makes her go to the doctor for treatment long before the infection spreads.
BV during pregnancy can also cause problems like premature labor, late miscarriage, and premature rupture of membranes – although these occurrences are also rare. If you're getting prenatal care, your doctor or midwife will be looking for signs and symptoms of infection.
For those of you who are worried about BV causing infertility, here are some recommendations:
Do everything you can to tune up your immune system. In addition to seeing a midwife or doctor, consult with a nutritionist, naturopath, or natural health specialist.
Work on your diet and lifestyle to eliminate anything that could be reducing your body's ability to heal itself and get pregnant.
After tuning up your immune system, if pregnancy doesn't happen spontaneously after six months (if you're over 35) to a year of real effort (having sex at the right time of the month and often enough), talk to your healthcare provider about next steps.