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Bacterial vaginosis is a common vaginal infection. Caused by an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria in the vagina, symptoms can include odor, discharge, and discomfort. But in many cases, it doesn’t cause any symptoms at all.

If you’ve been treated for bacterial vaginosis, there are steps you can take to prevent it from recurring. This article will take a closer look at how you can lower your risk of getting bacterial vaginosis, or prevent it from coming back again if you’ve had it.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) affects the mix of bacteria in the vagina. It occurs when the balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina is upset by more harmful bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), BV affects up to 50 percent of women in their reproductive years. Other sources suggest that as many as 70 percent of women are affected.

It’s not contagious. However, it’s more common among those who are sexually active. People who have vaginas and who don’t have sex only rarely develop BV.

Causes

Although the exact cause of BV isn’t clear, experts believe that sex is a contributing factor.

Unprotected sex, sex with a new partner, and sex with multiple partners may alter the balance of bacteria in the vagina. Other practices, such as douching, may also increase your risk of BV.

BV is also common among people who are pregnant. In this case, BV is likely triggered by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy.

BV isn’t the same as a yeast infection. Although both infections can cause similar symptoms, they have different causes. Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of fungus, while BV is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria.

You can have BV without showing any symptoms at all. In fact, according to the Center for Young Women’s Health, between 50 and 75 percent of women with BV don’t show symptoms.

If symptoms occur, they can include:

BV can increase your risk of contracting pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) as well as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV. If you’re pregnant, BV can trigger preterm labor, among other complications.

Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you notice any of the symptoms of BV. The only way to diagnose this condition is with a physical exam and a test of your vaginal fluid.

If you’re diagnosed with BV, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Unfortunately, BV often returns after a few months.

However, taking the following steps may help reduce your risk of recurring BV infections.

Pay attention to vaginal hygiene

You don’t need to do much to keep your vaginal area clean. Rinsing the area with warm water is usually enough.

In addition, try to:

  • avoid douching, which can increase your risk of developing BV
  • wipe from front to back after peeing or a bowel movement
  • change liners, pads, or tampons often
  • avoid scented or deodorizing vaginal products, including sprays and wipes

Wear breathable underwear

Your underwear may influence the overall health of your vagina. In general, it’s a good idea to choose underwear that’s loose-fitting, lightweight, breathable, and made from a natural fabric, like cotton.

Hypoallergenic laundry detergent may also help if the skin around your vagina is prone to irritation.

At night, go underwear-free to let your vaginal area breathe. If moisture builds up or your underwear becomes damp during the day, change it or use panty liners.

Ask about boric acid suppositories

Boric acid has been used to maintain vaginal health for centuries. It’s available over-the-counter (OTC) as a vaginal suppository.

Some sources recommend using it alongside antibiotic treatment. A retrospective study on the use of boric acid shows it’s a promising effective treatment.

A clinical trial is also being conducted to determine whether vaginal boric acid suppositories are as effective at treating BV as antibiotics. The results are pending.

Boric acid poses some serious risks. If taken by mouth, it can lead to poisoning and even death. Pregnant people shouldn’t take boric acid, as it can pose risks to a developing fetus.

Speak to your healthcare provider if you’re considering this option to make sure it’s safe for you.

Use condoms

If you have sex with a person who has a penis, exposure to semen can disrupt your vaginal flora. According to a 2011 study, semen exposure was associated with an increased incidence of BV. If you’ve been treated for BV, consistently using condoms may prevent the infection from returning.

It’s important to note that oral sex may also increase your risk of BV. According to research, saliva can transfer bacteria into the vagina that could lead to a bacterial overgrowth, creating an environment for BV to flourish.

Maintain a healthy vaginal pH

When vaginal pH is too high—that is, too basic or alkaline—it may encourage the growth of bacteria associated with BV. As a result, maintaining a vaginal pH that’s slightly acidic may help prevent reinfection.

One way to prevent your vaginal pH from becoming too alkaline is by using gels that contain lactic acid. Some OTC options include products such as Canesbalance, Gynalac, and Gynofit.

Take a probiotic

Healthy lactobacilli bacteria plays a role in maintaining vaginal pH and preventing infections such as BV.

A 2020 clinical trial found that taking oral Lactobacillus after antibiotic treatment for BV may prevent reinfection. Although more research is required, the results show promise.

Lactobacilli can be found in several OTC probiotic supplements. It can also be found in probiotic food products, such as yogurt.

Find healthy ways to destress

Although stress is unavoidable, too much of it can negatively affect your health in many ways, including the health of your vagina.

In fact, a 2018 study points to a connection between high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and BV.

There are a variety of healthy ways to manage stress and to prevent cortisol from affecting your vaginal pH — not to mention your overall health and well-being. Some effective stress management activities include:

  • Exercise. Being physically active can boost your brain’s production of endorphins, known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals can help reduce feelings of stress.
  • Deep breathing. Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this relaxation technique has been shown to be effective at lowering stress levels and improving mental function.
  • Yoga. Many forms of yoga and yoga poses may help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

Bacterial vaginosis is a common infection that most often affects sexually active people who have vaginas. It doesn’t always cause symptoms. When it does cause symptoms, they can include a fishy-smelling discharge, and vaginal itching and irritation.

Although antibiotics can help treat BV, it often comes back. You can lower your risk of recurring infections by addressing your vaginal hygiene and pH, and using condoms if you have sex with a person who has a penis.

Using OTC gels and supplements and reducing your stress levels may also help keep recurring infections at bay.

Be sure to follow up with your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of BV.