Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common cause of unusual vaginal discharge. BV is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it can increase your risk of getting an STI such as chlamydia.
Check if you have bacterial vaginosis
Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include:
- an unusual vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy smell, particularly after sex
- a change to the colour and consistency of your discharge, such as becoming greyish-white and thin and watery
Half of women with bacterial vaginosis do not have any symptoms.
Bacterial vaginosis does not usually cause any soreness or itching.
If you're unsure it's BV, check for other causes of unusual vaginal discharge.
Non-urgent advice: See a GP or go to a sexual health clinic if:
- you think you have bacterial vaginosis
The condition is not usually serious, but you'll need to be treated with antibiotics if you do have it.
It's also important to seek treatment if you're pregnant as there's a small chance it can cause complications with pregnancy.
Sexual health clinics can help with bacterial vaginosis
Sexual health clinics treat problems with the genitals and urinary system.
Many sexual health clinics offer a walk-in service, where you do not need an appointment.
They'll often get test results quicker than GP surgeries.
What happens at your appointment
If you have symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, a GP or sexual health clinic will want to confirm it is bacterial vaginosis and rule out an STI.
You'll be asked about your symptoms, and a doctor or nurse may look at your vagina.
A cotton bud may be wiped over the discharge inside your vagina to test for bacterial vaginosis and other infections.
Treatment for bacterial vaginosis
Recurring bacterial vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis is usually treated with antibiotic tablets or gels or creams.
These are prescribed by a GP or sexual health clinic.
If you have a same-sex partner, they may also need treatment.
It's common for bacterial vaginosis to come back, usually within a few months. If it comes back, you'll usually be given more antibiotics to treat it.
If you keep getting it (you get it more than 4 times in a year), you may be given an antibiotic gel that you put in your vagina. You may need to use this for a few months to help stop bacterial vaginosis coming back.
A GP or sexual health clinic will recommend how long you need to treat it.
They can also help identify if something is triggering your bacterial vaginosis, such as sex or your period.
Things you can do yourself
There are things you can do to help relieve symptoms and prevent bacterial vaginosis returning.
use water and plain soap to wash your genital area
have showers instead of baths
do not use perfumed soaps, bubble bath, shampoo or shower gel in the bath
do not use vaginal deodorants, washes or douches
do not put antiseptic liquids in the bath
do not use strong detergents to wash your underwear
do not smoke
What causes bacterial vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis is caused by a change in the natural balance of bacteria in your vagina.
What causes this to happen is not fully known, but you're more likely to get it if:
- you're sexually active (but women who have not had sex can also get bacterial vaginosis)
- you have had a change of partner
- you have an IUD (contraception device)
- you use perfumed products in or around your vagina
Bacterial vaginosis is not an STI, even though it can be triggered by sex.
A woman can pass it to another woman during sex.
You're more likely to get an STI if you have bacterial vaginosis. This may be because it makes your vagina less acidic and reduces your natural defences against infection.
Bacterial vaginosis in pregnancy
If you develop bacterial vaginosis in pregnancy, there's a small chance of complications, such as premature birth or miscarriage.
But bacterial vaginosis causes no problems in the majority of pregnancies.
Speak to a GP or your midwife if you're pregnant and your vaginal discharge changes.
Page last reviewed: 27 October 2022
Next review due: 27 October 2025