Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted infection. It’s an imbalance of the usual bacteria found in the vagina.

Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis

Often there are no symptoms of bacterial vaginosis. Some women may notice a change in the normal discharge from the vagina.

This discharge will usually be white or grey, thin or watery and have a strong, unpleasant fishy smell. This can be more noticeable during and after sex, and during periods.

Bacterial vaginosis does not usually cause itching or irritation.

What to do if you think you may have bacterial vaginosis

  1. Check if you could be triggering it with toiletries.
  2. Consider over the counter treatments from your pharmacy.
  3. Contact your GP practice for an appointment or book an appointment at your local sexual health service.

What does a bacterial vaginosis test involve?

Sometimes treatment is given based on symptoms without the need for an examination or test.

Sometimes a diagnosis can be made straightaway because of how the discharge looks. Sometimes the sample will be sent to a lab for testing.

You are more likely to need a test if you have frequent episodes of discharge.

Your nurse or doctor may perform an internal examination to check your vagina for signs of bacterial vaginosis. They may use a swab to collect a sample of the discharge from your vagina.

A swab looks a bit like a cotton bud and collecting a sample only takes a few minutes. It’s not painful, but it may be a little uncomfortable for a moment.

If your nurse or doctor suspects you are at risk of an STI they may do more tests.

Treatment for bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics must be prescribed by a doctor or nurse. You may be given an antibiotic cream or gel to use in your vagina, instead of antibiotic tablets by mouth.

While you’re there, make sure you tell the doctor or nurse if you:

  • are pregnant
  • think you might be pregnant
  • are breastfeeding

These may affect the type of treatment you’re given.

You can still have sex while being treated for bacterial vaginosis as it’s not sexually transmitted. However antibiotics and creams can affect condoms and other forms of contraception. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist who can give you further information.

Partners do not usually need treatment.

Non-antibiotic treatment is also available to buy in pharmacies.

What causes bacterial vaginosis?

Bacteria called lactobacilli naturally live in your vagina and stop other bacteria from growing there.

Sometimes the balance of these bacteria changes. If this happens you can develop bacterial vaginosis.

Bacterial vaginosis can’t be passed on. But it’s more common in sexually active people.

Other things that may increase the risk of getting it include:

  • having a new sexual partner
  • having multiple sexual partners
  • smoking
  • using scented soaps or perfumed bubble bath
  • putting antiseptic liquids in the bath
  • douching (washing or cleaning out the vagina with water or other fluids)
  • using vaginal washes or deodorant
  • using strong detergents to wash your underwear
  • receiving oral sex

How to prevent bacterial vaginosis

The causes of bacterial vaginosis are not fully understood, so it may not be possible to completely prevent it. However, you may be able to lower your risk of developing it by following our genital washing advice.

Last updated:
02 December 2022