Strong odor with vaginal discharge is a common symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV). Itchiness and a burning sensation when urinating are also possible. Untreated BV may increase your chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Your vagina naturally contains different kinds of bacteria. Usually, your body works to maintain the perfect balance between different bacteria, preventing specific types from growing out of control.

But sometimes, this delicate balance is upset, resulting in bacterial vaginosis (BV). It’s a pretty common condition, but if you don’t keep an eye on it, it can lead to complications and increase your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Read on to learn how to recognize the symptoms of BV and what to do if you have it.

BV doesn’t always cause symptoms. But when it does, they can include:

  • burning sensation when urinating
  • gray or white discharge
  • fishy-smelling discharge
  • itching and pain in vulva

Strong-smelling vaginal discharge is a hallmark symptom of BV. For some, the odor may get stronger after unprotected sexual intercourse if semen mixes with the discharge.

Remember, your vagina naturally contains a delicate balance of different types of bacteria. BV happens when certain kinds types of bacteria are present in greater amounts than usual. This overpowers the beneficial bacteria that usually keep their levels in check.

For context, when you have BV, the “bad” bacteria in your vagina can be present in levels that are 100 to 1,000 times more than usual.

Although doctors don’t know exactly why, they do know that being sexually active increases risk for bacterial vaginosis. Those who aren’t sexually active experience the condition in significantly smaller percentages.

Anyone with a vagina can develop BV. However, you may have an increased risk if you:

  • are African American
  • don’t use condoms or dental dams when having sex
  • have an intrauterine device (IUD)
  • have a history of using douches or other vaginal washes
  • have multiple sex partners
  • are pregnant

If you have symptoms of BV, it’s best to see your healthcare provider to get an accurate diagnosis. They’ll likely start with a physical exam. Next, they might also take a vaginal fluid sample to test for the presence of certain bacteria.

Both of these will help rule out conditions with similar symptoms, including yeast infections.

Keep in mind that testing vaginal fluid samples isn’t always reliable, as vaginal bacteria levels change frequently. A negative test result doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have BV.

Some cases of BV clear up on their own without treatment. But others require prescription antibiotics, such as clindamycin and metronidazole. These antibiotics are available in pill and gel form.

If you’re prescribed antibiotics, make sure you use the full course as directed by your healthcare provider, even if your symptoms seem to clear up quickly. If you still have symptoms in two to three days after finishing your antibiotics course, talk to your healthcare provider.

While it’s best to see your healthcare provider if you have BV, there are also a few things you can do on your own to help clear up the condition.

These include:

  • eating probiotic-containing foods, such as yogurt with live and active cultures or taking a probiotic supplement
  • wearing loose-fitting, breathable cotton underwear
  • practicing healthy vaginal hygiene habits
  • using unscented soaps and unscented tampons whenever possible

Looking for more? These natural home remedies may help. But if you aren’t noticing results after about a week, it’s time for medical treatment.

You usually can’t pass BV on to someone with a penis, but BV symptoms can make penetration uncomfortable. It’s best to give your vagina a bit of rest while its pH resets.

You can pass BV to anyone with a vagina by sharing toys, having vulva-to-vulva contact, or finger penetration. In addition, if your partner has a vagina, they may want to follow up with their healthcare provider for treatment.

If BV doesn’t clear up on its own or you don’t properly treat it, it can increase your risk of contracting an STI, such as HIV, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. If you’re pregnant, it can also increase your risk of early delivery.

Untreated BV also increases your risk for a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease. This condition can affect fertility and increases the risk for premature delivery if you’re pregnant, according to the Center for Young Women’s Health.

It isn’t always possible to prevent bacterial vaginosis. But there are several things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Use barrier methods. Use barrier methods of protection, such as condoms and dental dams, during sexual activity. The interaction between semen and vaginal discharge can increase your risk of getting BV.
  • Keep it natural. Avoid douching or using scented products on your vulva or in your vagina. These can throw off your vaginal pH, making you more vulnerable to BV.

If you’ve had BV in the past, you can get it again. According to the Center for Young Women’s Health, an estimated 50 percent of women with BV got the condition again within 12 months of treatment.

If you have recurrent bouts of BV, talk to your healthcare provider. You may need a longer course of antibiotic treatment.

BV is an extremely common condition that happens when the delicate balance of bacteria in your vagina is upset. It sometimes resolves on its own, but you might need antibiotics from your healthcare provider.

Keep in mind that you can have recurring bouts of BV, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.