Ava is a healthy 16 year-old girl who recently noticed a fishy smell coming from her vagina. She has also noticed that that her underwear seem more wet than usual (small amounts of liquid produced by the vagina each day is called vaginal discharge and is usually normal). Ava told her mom about her symptoms and her mom took her to the doctor. The health care provider told Ava she may have a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Ava knew about yeast infections, because she has seen ads in magazines and T.V. commercials about medicine for this. She has never heard of bacterial vaginosis before and has a lot of questions. Here is some information for parental caregivers to know about this fairly common condition.
What is Bacterial Vaginosis?
Bacterial Vaginosis, often called “BV”, is generally a mild vaginal condition. It happens when there is a higher level of one type of bacteria in the vagina. These bacteria normally live in the vagina, but when there are more of them than usual, people like Ava may notice a fishy small and more vaginal discharge.
Normally, there are “good” bacteria (called lactobacilli). Other bacteria, like gardnerella vaginalis, are often found in smaller amounts. When these other bacteria overtake the good bacteria, this imbalance causes the symptoms associated with BV.
It is important to know that BV is not the same as a vaginal yeast infection. Yeast and BV are not treated the same way. So, if your tween or teen has symptoms, is important to take them to see their health provider.
Why Does Bacterial Vaginosis Occur?
The exact reasons why BV occurs are not known. Experts believe that certain things can make BV more likely, including:
- Vaginal douching (washing the inside of the vagina with liquids purchased over-the-counter or that are homemade)
- Sex with a new partner, or with more than one partner in a short period of time , whether male or female
- Cigarette smoking
- Exposure to antibiotics
- Menstrual cycles (also called “periods”), as some women report BV after their periods
BV can even occur in females who have never had sex before. It can also occur at any age, although it is much less likely to happen before puberty.
It cannot be transmitted from sitting on a toilet seat, or using someone else’s sheets or towels.
What are Signs or Symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)?
The most common symptom is a change in vaginal odor and appearance. Vaginal discharge can normally be clear, white or slightly yellow. With BV, the discharge can become darker white or gray in color, it generally becomes more fluid (less thick). Less common symptoms are redness or vaginal itching. However, up to 70% (that’s 7 out of 10) women who have BV do not have any symptoms!
How is BV diagnosed?
The only way to know for sure if someone has BV is by testing a sample of the vaginal discharge. A health care provider will place a very small Q-tip inside the vagina to get a sample of the vaginal discharge. They put the fluid on a slide and examine it under a microscope. This exam is not painful! And, many health providers will allow the patient to insert the Q-tip themselves, which can be less stressful for the teen.
How is BV Treated?
BV is treated with prescription antibiotics. An antibiotic cream or gel can be placed in the vagina using an applicator (similar to putting in a tampon) or pills can be taken by mouth. If a cream or gel is used for treatment, women should not use tampons while they are being treated as they can make the medication less effective. It is important to complete the entire course of the prescription to cure the BV infection, even if the symptoms improve after the first few days of using the medicine. Unfortunately, BV can come back even after completing a course of antibiotics. This may mean treatment with a longer course of antibiotics is necessary.
How Can Bacterial Vaginosis Be Prevented?
Health care providers do not completely understand why some people get BV and others do not. Using condoms or abstaining from sex, not smoking, and not using products like vaginal douches or vaginal deodorant sprays may lessen the chances of getting BV.
Is Bacterial Vaginosis harmful?
Generally, once BV is treated properly, it does not cause any problems. If BV is not treated, it can increase the chances of getting a sexually transmitted infections (for sexually active women) or developing pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection in the abdomen, or belly). For pregnant women with BV, if the BV is untreated it can lead to increased chances of having the baby early (called a premature baby).
Here are some resources parents and teens can check out to learn more:
- Young Women’s Health – website http://youngwomenshealth.org. This website is produced by Boston Children’s Hospital and has information that speaks to teens directly.
- Kids Health – website http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bv.html#. This website is produced by Nemours Children’s Hospital and features images and information for teens on common health topics.