Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection caused by having too much of a certain type of bacteria in the vagina.

The vagina naturally maintains a balance of lactobacilli, which are beneficial bacteria. These are often referred to as the vaginal flora or microbiota. When vaginal flora is out of balance, harmful anaerobic bacteria take over.

Men can’t get BV because the penis doesn’t have the same delicate balance of bacteria. In addition, bacterial vaginosis doesn’t spread like a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Read on to learn more about whether men can pass bacterial vaginosis on to their partners and the kinds of conditions that can cause similar symptoms in men.

There’s no way for men to get BV. However, experts aren’t as sure about whether men can spread BV to female partners.

Women can develop BV regardless of whether they’re sexually active. But sexually active women do have a higher risk of developing bacterial vaginosis. Women are also more likely to develop BV when having sex with women.

Still, some research suggests that men can spread BV or similar bacterial infections to female partners.

A 2015 study involving 165 uncircumcised men concluded that participants who had one or more female sexual partners, aside from their spouse, were more likely to carry bacteria associated with BV on their penis. In turn, this increased their spouse’s risk of developing BV after having unprotected sex.

Another study from 2013 involved 157 heterosexual men. The investigators found that men with a history of nongonococcal urethritis were more likely to carry BV-causing bacteria on their penis. Nongonococcal urethritis is a condition that involves inflammation of the urethra, the tube through which urine passes on its way out of the penis.

Several conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of BV in men. These include ongoing itchiness, discharge, and unusual odors.

Thrush

Thrush happens when a fungus, usually Candida albicans, grows out of control on your penis. It’s commonly called a yeast infection. Thrush can cause penile itching and a build-up of a chunky substance under your foreskin if you have one.

Thrush can be caused by wearing tight clothing that doesn’t let your genital area get enough fresh air. Sweating a lot can also increase your risk. You can spread or develop thrush by having unprotected sex.

STIs

Many STIs caused by bacteria can have symptoms similar to those of BV.

Some STIs that may cause these symptoms include:

STIs are spread through unprotected sex.

Urinary tract infection

Similar to BV, urinary tract infections (UTIs) are usually associated with women. But men can get them, too. This usually happens when there’s an overgrowth of bacteria in your bladder or ureters, which connect your kidneys to your bladder.

Additional symptoms of a UTI include:

  • inflammation
  • pain while urinating
  • bloody urine

UTIs are often caused when Escherichia coli bacteria found in your body travel up your urethra into your bladder and kidneys.

Balanitis

Balanitis happens when the skin on the tip of your penis becomes irritated and inflamed.

Balanitis is more common in men who have foreskin. In some cases, you may not be able to pull back your foreskin because the skin is too swollen.

Several things can cause balanitis, including:

You can reduce your risk of spreading bacteria related to BV or other STIs by following a few steps:

  • Wear a condom or use protection during vaginal or anal sex. Use a dental dam during oral sex to keep bacteria from getting in your mouth. Learn how to properly use condoms.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have at one time.
  • Keep your penis and genital area clean to keep bacteria from overgrowing. Make sure you clean the skin beneath your foreskin regularly, too.
  • Wear loose, breathable cotton underwear to ventilate your genital area, especially when exercising or doing other things that make you sweat.

Men can’t get BV. However, men can carry BV-related bacteria on their penis. If you’re male and have symptoms similar to BV, it could be due to another condition, including an STI. Make an appointment with your doctor to figure out what’s causing your symptoms so you can start treating the condition and avoid spreading it to others.