Bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections are both common forms of vaginitis. Neither is typically cause for concern.

While the symptoms are often the same or similar, the causes and treatments for these conditions are different.

Some yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, but all cases of BV require prescription medication.

Read on to learn how to identify the underlying cause and determine whether you should see a doctor or other healthcare provider.

BV and yeast infections can both cause unusual vaginal discharge.

Discharge from a yeast infection is usually a thick, white consistency and doesn’t have a scent.

Discharge from BV is thin, yellow or gray, and carries a strong unpleasant odor.

It’s possible to have a yeast infection and BV at the same time. If you have symptoms of both conditions, see a doctor for diagnosis.

BV

Experts estimate about half of people who have BV don’t experience any noticeable symptoms.

If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • a “fishy” odor that gets stronger after sex or during menstruation
  • thin gray, yellow, or greenish vaginal discharge
  • vaginal itching
  • burning during urination

Yeast infection

Symptoms may include:

  • thick, white, “cottage cheese-like” vaginal discharge
  • redness and swelling around the vaginal opening
  • pain, soreness, and itching of the vulva
  • burning during urination
  • burning during sex

Simply put, a yeast infection is fungal in nature, whereas BV is bacterial.

An overgrowth of Candida fungus causes yeast infections.

An overgrowth of one of the kinds of bacteria in your vagina causes BV.

BV

A change in your vaginal pH may trigger BV. A change in pH can cause the bacteria that naturally grow inside your vagina to become more dominant than it should.

The most common culprit is an overgrowth of the Gardnerella vaginalis bacteria.

Your vaginal pH can fluctuate for many reasons, including:

  • hormonal changes, such as menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause
  • douching or other excessive “cleansing” methods
  • having penile-vaginal intercourse with a new partner

Yeast infection

Yeast infections can develop if there’s an overgrowth of Candida fungus in the vagina.

This may result from:

  • high blood sugar
  • antibiotics
  • birth control pills
  • hormone therapy
  • pregnancy

Although yeast infections aren’t considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI), some evidence suggests they can develop as a result of sexual activity.

Make an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare provider if:

  • This is your first time experiencing the symptoms of a yeast infection.
  • You’ve had a yeast infection before, but you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing one again.
  • You suspect that you have BV.

Also see a doctor if your symptoms are severe. For example:

  • Your symptoms persist after a full course of OTC or antibiotic treatment. Yeast infections and BV can cause complications if they aren’t successfully treated.
  • You experience irritation that leads to cracked or bleeding skin at the site of your infection. It’s possible that you have a different kind of vaginitis or an STI.
  • You find the infection keeps coming back after treatment or the symptoms never seem to go away. A long-term BV infection can affect your fertility.

Home remedies, OTC creams and medications, and prescription antibiotics can treat yeast infections.

Prescription antibiotics can only treat BV.

BV

Metronidazole (Flagyl) and tinidazole (Tindamax) are two commonly prescribed oral medications used to treat BV.

Your provider could also prescribe a suppository cream, such as clindamycin (Cleocin).

Although your symptoms should clear up quickly — within two or three days — be sure to finish out the full five- or seven-day course of antibiotics.

Finishing the full course of medication is the only way to clear the infection and reduce your risk for recurrence.

During this time, avoid having vaginal intercourse or inserting anything into the vagina that could introduce bacteria, including:

  • tampons
  • menstrual cups
  • sex toys

Unless your symptoms continue after your prescription runs out, you probably won’t need a follow-up appointment.

How long does BV typically last?

Once you begin treatment, your symptoms should subside within two or three days. If left untreated, BV may take two weeks to go away on its own — or it may keep coming back.

Yeast infection

You can buy suppository creams that kill the Candida fungus, including miconazole (Monistat) and clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin), at your local pharmacy.

If you see a doctor, they may prescribe a prescription-strength suppository cream or an oral medication called fluconazole.

If you experience recurrent yeast infections — more than four per year — your provider may prescribe a different kind of medication.

Although some medications may only require one dose, others may run a course of up to 14 days. Finishing the full course of medication is the only way to clear the infection and reduce your risk for recurrence.

During this time, avoid having vaginal intercourse or inserting anything into the vagina that could introduce bacteria, including:

  • tampons
  • menstrual cups
  • sex toys

If your symptoms subside after treatment, you likely won’t need a follow-up appointment.

How long does a yeast infection typically last?

OTC and prescription medication can usually clear up a yeast infection within a week. If you rely on home remedies or opt not to treat the yeast infection, symptoms can last for several weeks or more.

If left untreated, both BV and yeast infections can lead to further complications.

Can you pass either condition to a sexual partner?

You can pass a yeast infection to any sexual partner.

You can pass BV to a partner who has a vagina through oral sex or sharing sex toys.

Although people with penises can’t get BV, researchers aren’t sure if partners with penises can spread BV to other partners with vaginas.

BV

It’s common for BV symptoms to come back within 3 to 12 months of treatment.

If left untreated, BV can increase your risk for repeat infections and STIs.

If you’re pregnant, having BV puts you at higher risk for delivering prematurely.

If you have HIV, BV can also make it more likely for you to transmit HIV to any sexual partner who has a penis.

Yeast infection

A mild yeast infection may go away without treatment.

Unless you’re pregnant, there are few risks to giving the infection a little time to see if it clears on its own.

If you have a vaginal yeast infection and give birth vaginally, you may pass the yeast infection to the baby in the form of an oral infection called thrush.

Minimizing irritation to your vulva and protecting the natural microbial environment inside your vagina will help prevent reinfection.

You can also follow these preventive tips:

  • Wipe from front to back when using the bathroom.
  • Wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking, cotton underwear.
  • Immediately change out of wet clothes or bathing suits.
  • Avoid spending extended amounts of time in hot tubs or hot baths.
  • Avoid using scented soaps or fragrances on your vulva.
  • Avoid douching.
  • Take probiotics.