I remember the first time I noticed a weird-looking discharge and distinctly "fishy smell" coming from my underwear. I was so nervous—I'd had yeast infections before, but this was different. Was it a horrible UTI? Or...an STD? After a chat with my doctor and a diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis (BV), I felt way better. There's a lot of confusion surrounding BV and its relationship to STDs. With a little knowledge, you'll feel way more confident about keeping your vagina happy and healthy.
What Is BV?
Bacterial vaginosis is a mild bacterial infection of the vagina. And while it's incredibly common—especially in young women—healthcare professionals aren't exactly sure what causes it or how it spreads. Kinda weird to read, right? But that is the truth about many common medical symptoms and treatments. We do know that BV infections happen when the vaginal bacteria's balance is off, with too much "bad" bacteria and not enough "good" bacteria to offset it. This imbalance leads to common BV symptoms that are easy to treat to get you feeling better ASAP.
If I Have BV, Do I Have an STD?
BV is not a sexually transmitted disease. It's a bacterial infection that does not seem to be directly related to sex. That being said, however, it's possible that sexual intercourse and oral sex can increase your chances of getting BV because semen and saliva can both influence with the bacterial balance in your vagina. One major thing to take note of is that having BV can increase your chances of contracting an actual STD—so it's important to speak with your doctor and treat your BV with proven medication to ensure it goes away completely.
BV Symptoms vs. STD Symptoms
BV symptoms and STD symptoms can have some overlap, so it's common to feel concerned when your vagina doesn't appear to be totally healthy. But it's also extremely common for women to not have any symptoms when they experience bacterial vaginosis. The following symptoms may be a sign that you are experiencing BV:
- A thin white or gray vaginal discharge
- A fishy vaginal smell, which is most common after sex
- Itching or burning inside the vagina
- Burning while peeing
- Itching of the vulva or around the external genitalia
Symptoms for a pretty common STD, chlamydia, include:
- Pain while peeing
- Pain in the low abdomen
- Vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex
- Bleeding between periods
Another STD with some symptomatic overlap with BV is gonorrhea. Its major symptoms include:
- Discharge that can be bloody, cloudy, and/or thick
- Pain or burning while peeing
- Super heavy period or bleeding between periods
- Pain when passing stool
- Itchiness in the anus
Genital herpes shares some symptoms with BV, too. Check out the common herpes symptoms:
- Small red bumps and blisters called vesicles in the genital region
- Open sores called ulcers in the genital region
- Pain in the vagina or genital region
- Itchiness in the vagina or genital region
- Painful urination with the presence of ulcers
Trichomoniasis, also called trich, shares a ton of symptoms with BV, so it can be easy to mistake one for the other. Here are some signs of trich:
- Burning, itching or irritation in or around the vagina and urinary tract
- Burning or irritation while urinating
- A change in smell/color of discharge
HIV is one of the less common STDs. Look out for these early symptoms if you're concerned about HIV:
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands
What Are the Risks Associated With BV?
BV itself doesn't present much cause for concern as an infection. Bacterial imbalance causes minor, easy-to-manage symptoms that will clear up quickly with antibiotics. However, BV can lower your immune response to other more serious diseases like HIV, chlamydia, herpes and gonorrhea. For pregnant women, BV can lead to low birth weight or premature birth. Resulting from increased exposure to STDs, BV also increases the risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, which can make it a challenge to get pregnant when you want to.
Why Should I Talk to the Doctor?
It's really important to talk to a doctor if you suspect you have BV or an STD. You don't want the infection to get worse or spread, especially since BV is honestly really easy to treat. If you see your doctor in person, they can diagnose BV with a physical exam. Depending on your symptoms, the doctor might perform a pelvic exam and take a sample of your vaginal fluid for testing. If you'd prefer a discreet online solution, try Wisp's Symptoms Quiz to get answers and meds ASAP.
Since the symptoms are so mild, and in some cases nonexistent, be sure to see your gynecologist annually for checkups. These regular appointments are important when you're sexually active (and in the case of BV, even if you're not sexually active) to help identify any signs of infections or diseases.
What's the Treatment for BV?
Don't worry — treating BV is super easy. Getting treatment can help your infection clear up faster and keep you from contracting any other infections while your immune support system is low so you can get back to your normal life.
The most common treatments for BV are antibiotics, which you can take in pill form or as gels or creams you insert into your vagina with an applicator, which is sort of like a tampon. It's important that you finish the full round of antibiotics, even if your symptoms clear up before you've finished all your pills or cream. Unfinished antibiotics can lead to a recurrence of the infection or possibly help the bacteria build a resistance to the drugs.
While you're on the antibiotics, your doctor might recommend you take a break from condoms or diaphragms (since the cream can weaken them) and alcohol, which can make you sick when paired with some antibiotics. You should also abstain from sex until your symptoms are gone so you don't inadvertently spread the infection.
Treatment might vary depending on the severity of your symptoms, but in most cases, the discomfort stops in two to three days, and the course of antibiotics only takes a week to complete.
What Are the Treatments For STIs?
If you do end up being diagnosed with an STI instead of BV, there's no need to panic! STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis are curable and super easy to treat. Wisp doctors can make a diagnosis via STI testing and get you an appropriate treatment that will target your infection (which helps ensure the medication you take will be effective). Our doctors might also recommend a daily probiotic to restore your gut flora, especially during, or after antibiotic treatment.
BV is a mild bacterial infection that's easy to treat and poses no inherent concerns. However, since it lowers your body's ability to fight other diseases or infections, it's super important that you seek medical treatment if you're experiencing any of the symptoms linked to BV to prevent contracting STDs or other infections.
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