Confronted with the symptoms of a vaginal infection—annoying itching and a discharge—many women assume they have a yeast infection and treat themselves with an over-the-counter product. But there are times when that just doesn’t seem to help. Why?
Researchers have found that many women are misinterpreting their symptoms. What they assume is a yeast infection is often another type of infection—bacterial vaginosis, called BV for short.
Unlike yeast infections, which are bothersome but relatively harmless, bacterial vaginosis can be serious: BV may increase a woman’s risk of infection following gynecological surgery and her risk of complications during pregnancy. For example, a woman faces a 40 percent greater risk of having a preterm, low-birthweight baby if she has bacterial vaginosis.
BV occurs when the natural balance of microorganisms in the vagina is disturbed. Normally the vagina contains an abundance of protective bacteria called lactobacilli. When these “good” bacteria are wiped out, there’s an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria, leading to bacterial vaginosis. Yeast infections occur when a fungus (or yeast) called candida albicans, which normally resides in the vagina, begins to multiply quickly.
Almost half of all women with bacterial vaginosis have no symptoms. For this reason, many healthcare professionals are starting to recommend that women be tested for BV during their annual exams, before gynecological surgery and during pregnancy.
When symptoms are present, they may be confused with those of a yeast infection (see “The differences at a glance”). For example, itching and irritation, hallmarks of a yeast infection, are also present in about half of women with BV.
A better way to tell the difference between the two is by the type of vaginal discharge they produce. In a yeast infection, the discharge is usually thick, white and odorless. With BV, the discharge is thin, milky white or gray and usually has an unpleasant smell.
It’s important to see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. Your doctor can determine if you have bacterial vaginosis using a few simple tests.
Because these two types of vaginal infections have different causes, they have different treatments. A woman can use a nonprescription product to treat recurrent yeast infections (after initially being diagnosed by a physician), but treating bacterial vaginosis requires a prescription antibiotic.
So pay close attention to all vaginal symptoms, and check with your doctor if you have any doubt as to what they mean.