Editor’s Note: Bacterial vaginosis (BV) can affect anyone with a vagina, but for this article, we included sources who generally referred to these people as women.
As you may know, the vagina naturally houses different types of bacteria. When that balance and the vaginal ecosystem get thrown off or altered, issues can occur. Such is the case with a vaginal infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV), which, according to the CDC, is considered the most common vaginal condition in women age 15-44.
As Jonathan Schaffir, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explained, BV is considered an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina. The hallmarks of BV typically include thin, white-to-gray discharge with a “fishy” odor.
Dr. Schaffir noted that the bacteria that can cause symptoms of BV may be in the vagina normally, but the “good bacteria” in the vagina usually suppress this “bad bacteria” and help prevent it from growing out of control. “What tips that scale and makes that [bacterial] imbalance occur is not well understood, and it’s also really unclear why some women never get it [BV] and some of them get it over and over again,” he said.
According to the CDC, “there are no known best ways to prevent” BV because the ways in which the condition spreads aren’t fully understood.
However, there are some things you can do to help maintain a healthy vaginal environment and potentially help reduce the chances of an imbalance of bacteria from occurring. Keep scrolling for a few helpful tips on BV prevention from ob-gyns, plus more info on this common vaginal infection.
Remember, if you think you have bacterial vaginosis or have any other concerns, check in with your healthcare provider for personalized advice.
Don’t Douche or Internally Wash the Vagina
“The biggest rule of thumb is no douching or washing inside the vaginal canal,” said Tamika K. Cross, MD, FACOG, a board-certified ob-gyn and the resident ob-gyn of SweetSpot Labs.
Because the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, Dr. Cross explained, interfering with its natural process can disrupt the bacteria balance in the vagina. While the vagina should do its own thing in the cleansing department, Dr. Cross said it is safe to cleanse the vulva, or the external genital area, but that heavily fragranced products should be avoided to help prevent irritation and disruption of the pH balance of vulvar skin.
“Instead, opt for a gentle, pH-balanced wash,” she said.
Wipe From Front to Back
In addition to maintaining the good bacteria that live in the vagina, Dr. Schaffir said to avoid overwhelming the vagina with “bacteria from the outside — some of which could come from areas towards the rectum.”
Wiping the vagina from front to back after using the bathroom can help with this. According to the Mayo Clinic, wiping from front to back can also help reduce your risk of developing a UTI.
Wear Properly Fitting, Breathable Underwear
Dr. Schaffir mentioned that, when it comes to underwear and vaginal health, it’s ideal to avoid a persistently wet environment. He added that tight-fitting underwear may also pull bacteria into the vaginal opening and hold moisture against the vaginal area, which could create “more of an environment for bacteria to thrive.”
So what type of underwear should you choose? Dr. Cross said natural fabrics, like cotton, tend to be more breathable than synthetics. “This can help reduce bacterial growth and, in turn, minimize the risk of developing BV.”
What You Should Know About Bacterial Vaginosis and Sex
While Dr. Schaffir noted that BV is not a sexually transmitted infection, he did say it’s more common in people with vaginas who have multiple sexual partners or who have sex frequently. That said, it can also occur in those who aren’t sexually active.
The Cleveland Clinic and the CDC both note that limiting your sexual partners and using latex condoms may help reduce the risk of BV. As a reminder, according to Planned Parenthood, condoms also help prevent pregnancy and the contraction of STDs.
Can’t use latex condoms? Dr. Cross said if latex causes you irritation, choose a nonlatex alternative. “Just know that nonlatex options may be more prone to breakage, so before you switch, make sure you’ve eliminated other potential causes of irritation — it could be the lubrication on the latex condom or a lack of lubrication.”