Bacterial vaginosis symptoms go unnoticed in most women: 3 obvious flags you have it

We speak to three qualified experts to arm you with the need-to-knows.

Bacterial vaginosis symptoms: A woman with bacterial vaginosis sits at her desk
(Image credit: Getty)

We speak to three qualified experts to arm you with the need-to-knows.

You're likely clued up on the many thrush symptoms, signs of a urinary tract infection and even the different vaginal infection types, but have you ever heard of BV and do you know what the most common bacterial vaginosis symptoms are? 

According to doctor Suhail Hussain, GP at Chelsea Pharmacy Medical Clinic, bacterial vaginosis - also known as BV - is a vaginal infection that often happens when a woman experiences change to her vaginal pH (that's the acidity, FYI).

Vaginal discharge is a symptom, and stats show up to 66% of women will have BV at some point in their lives - that's one in three women, or as clinical nurse and sexual health specialist Helen Knox explains, a whopping 8.9 million women in the UK.

Wondering what the bacterial vaginosis symptoms, causes or treatments are? Keep scrolling.

Bacterial vaginosis symptoms: 3 most common

Did you know? As many women as 50% of women won't experience any bacterial vaginosis symptoms whatsoever and therefore go undiagnosed. "Unlike thrush, it's not normally sore or itchy," explains doctor Connie Fearnley, junior doctor and GP trainee.

The main red flags include:

  • A change in your normal vaginal discharge from clear to green or greyish
  • An offensive (often fishy smelling) odour
  • Symptoms worsening after sex.

Knox stresses that if you understand the correct symptoms to watch out for, it’s much easier to determine whether you are suffering from BV. "Ultimately, the vagina is self-cleaning, but it is also a delicate environment which can so easily be disrupted," she shares.

Bacterial vaginosis symptoms: Repeated pills on pink background

Bacterial vaginosis causes: how do you get BV? 

Wondering how you get BV? In short, it normally occurs when your vaginal pH is a little out of whack.

According to the doctors, other causes include excessive washing, using perfumed soap or bubble bath, antibiotics, menstruation, using an IUD or coil and even semen (read up on the different contraception types, here).

Although it is not a sexually transmitted infection (here's how to know if you have an STD, by the way), it can be transmitted sexually, Fearnley explains. "While the cause of BV is not completely understood, symptoms typically present in sexually active women," she explains.

Bacterial vaginosis treatment: how do you treat BV? 

Good question. Hussain advises a topical lactic acid gel, pessary or oral antibiotics - most commonly an oral contraceptive called metronidazole - but encourages you to visit your doctor if you are at all worried you may have the infection. These all treat the infection by helping to restore the normal pH balance of your vagina.

Not so sure about booking a GP appointment or feeling anxious about the prospect? "Many sexual health clinics offer a walk-in service where you do not require an appointment," explains Fearnley.

Do note here: it's important to treat BV because it can recur if not treated correctly, and puts you at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infection if you have it for a prolonged period of time.

Bacterial vaginosis symptoms: Woman touching her face

4 tips for avoiding bacterial vaginosis:

In short, your vagina is all about balance. You need lactobacillus - aka good bacteria- down there to stop any other micro-organisms growing and disrupting your pH - aka your acid and alkaline balance.

Do try and make sure you're doing the right things day-to-day to keep this balance happy, the experts stress. How? Try the following.

 1. Always practice safe sex

Obvious, but important - read our round ups of the best condoms, best sex toys and best lubes, while you're here.

2. Avoid scented products

One of the most important vaginal care tips of them all. "Avoid strong vaginal deodorants as these alter the vaginal pH," explains Fearnley.

Try this: just use water and plain soap to wash your vagina. Simple.

3. Take showers instead of long baths

The doctors share that baths increase your chances of contracting the infection, so are best avoided if you're worried you may have it. Take note.

4. Avoid strong detergents to wash your underwear

Another simple but easy-to-action one: be mindful of what you're washing your underwear with.

This is a good general down-there care point: after all, your vagina will be sitting against your underwear for at least twelve hours of each day, right?

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.