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Bacterial Vaginosis

Last updated: October 12, 2022

What is bacterial vaginosis?

Bacterial vaginosis (also called BV) is a infection that occurs when the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina is interrupted and replaced by an overgrowth of certain bacteria. The vagina normally contains mostly “good” bacteria and fewer “harmful” bacteria. BV develops when there is an increase in “harmful” bacteria and fewer “good” bacteria.

How do I get it?

The cause of BV is not understood. It can develop after having vaginal sex, which can disrupt the balance between the good bacteria that protect the vagina from infection and the harmful bacteria that don’t. It is not clear what role sexual activity plays in the development of BV, but BV is more common among women who have had vaginal sex. BV is not always from sexual contact.

Certain things can upset the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina and put you more at risk for BV. They are:

  • Having a new sex partner or multiple sex partners
  • Douching
  • Using an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control
  • Not using a condom

What are the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis?

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge (milky white or gray and thin) with an unpleasant odor
  • Burning when urinating
  • Itching around the outside of the vagina
  • Irritation

How can I prevent getting bacterial vaginosis?

One way to prevent getting bacterial vaginosis is to limit the number of sexual partners you have. A way to do this is by practicing abstinence. Abstinence means not having sex with anyone. Another way to prevent getting bacterial vaginosis is by having only one partner who only has sex with you.

People who decide to have sex, especially if they have multiple partners, must be responsible for protecting themselves and others from infections. Do this by knowing the right way to use condoms and use them every time you have sex. Condoms can help prevent the spread of bacterial vaginosis. Though not 100% effective, condoms are the best protection. Even if you use another birth control method, use a condom if there is a risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection during sex. Also, it is important to avoid abusing alcohol and drugs because they can prevent you from making safe choices to protect your health.

Avoid douching. You are at an increased risk for bacterial vaginosis if you douche.

Is there a test and treatment for bacterial vaginosis?

Yes. Your doctor may be able to see signs of BV, like a grayish-white discharge, during an examination of the vagina. A sample of the discharge taken during the exam can be tested.

Antibiotics can be used to treat BV if you test positive. Take all medicine as prescribed, even if you had no symptoms or your symptoms are gone. Generally, male sex partners of women with BV do not need to be treated. You can get BV again even after being treated. If you are pregnant, get tested for STIs and HIV early and again late in your pregnancy. If you think you have symptoms, call the Department of Health for confidential referral and treatment.

What happens if I have symptoms of bacterial vaginosis and I am not treated?

Untreated bacterial vaginosis is a cause of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The germs go deep into the body, damaging the reproductive system. The tiny tubes of the reproductive system can also become scarred and blocked as the body fights the infection. If pregnant women are not treated, problems such as premature delivery and low birth weight babies may occur.


  • Increased risk for getting HIV
  • Infertility (unable to have babies)
  • Ectopic (tubal) pregnancy
  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • During pregnancy:
    • Premature delivery
    • Low birth weight newborns

For more information, referrals or CONFIDENTIAL treatment, contact:

STI Prevention and Care Program
Anne Arundel County Department of Health
1 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Suite 200
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
STI Services


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