Bacterial vaginosis is a common infection that is easily treated, but embarrassment can stop women from seeking the help they need.

Don’t be embarrassed about bacterial vaginosis (BV) – it’s more common than you might think, and we’ve seen it all before.

That’s the message from one of Ireland’s leading sexual health clinicians, who has advised women to get checked, and get treated.

“BV is an inflammation in the vagina caused by an overgrowth of one of the bacterial species called anaerobes naturally found in the vagina. These overgrow the ‘good bacteria’ called lactobacilli, so in effect it is an imbalance between the bad bacteria and the good bacteria,” says Dr Dominic Rowley, a Consultant Physician in Genitourinary Medicine.

“In effect, it’s bacterial imbalance between the bad bacteria and the good bacteria, not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and it’s not contagious, but it can be difficult to live with and can occur in women in their early teens right up to those in their forties.”

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Causes and symptoms of BV

The main causes of the infection, which can result in an unusual white or grey discharge, an unpleasant fishy odour, vaginal itch or pain when urinating, are multiple sexual partners, a change in partner, using sex toys, and douching. BV is different from thrush and has different symptoms needing different treatments.

“Some people douche because it’s something that their mothers and grandmothers have always done, but it’s not necessary because the vagina is self-cleaning,” explains Dr. Rowley.

“It can be self-perpetuating – women use a douche then notice the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, so they do it again and that makes it worse.”

Treatments for BV

BV is one of the most common vaginal infections, but it is easily treated. Doctors can prescribe a week-long course of antibiotics, and over-the-counter gels are also available. Some of these gels treat and can also prevent recurrence of BV.

“The gels aren’t as effective as the antibiotics, which clear about 80% of infections,” notes Dr Rowley. “However, over-the-counter medications are available in pharmacies and online, and women who lead a busy life do not have to go to a GP to get these gels.”


Untreated BV can make women more susceptible to contracting STIs, and, in pregnant women, can lead to premature delivery and low-weight babies.

What’s more, women who have BV and HIV are more likely to pass the HIV infection onto their partners.

In rare cases, BV can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause infertility.

“My key piece of advice would be if you have a discharge that’s not normal for you, please come into a sexual health clinic,” Dr Rowley concludes.

“Don’t be embarrassed – it’s one of the most common things we see and it’s really easily treated.”