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Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

Find out about the symptoms, causes and treatment of bacterial vaginosis (BV). 

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginal discharge. It is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) but it is more common in people with a vagina who are sexually active. BV does not occur in people with a penis.

Signs and symptoms of bacterial vaginosis

Half of people with BV will not experience any symptoms.

However, the most common symptom is unusual vaginal discharge. This discharge can have a strong fishy smell (particularly after sex) and can be white or grey and watery.

BV does not cause itchiness or soreness and if those symptoms develop, there may be another condition affecting the vagina.

The causes and how it’s passed on

BV is known to upset the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina but what causes BV is a bit of a mystery. BV can be passed between sexual partners who both have vaginas but cannot be passed from a person with a vagina to a person with a penis.

You are more likely to develop BV if you:

  • Use scented soaps or bubble baths
  • Have an IUD fitted
  • Use vaginal deodorant
  • Douche (clean out the vagina)
  • Use strong detergents to wash your underwear
  • Are a smoker

Other factors that may play a role are hormonal changes, semen in the vagina and contraceptive devices that are fitted in the uterus (IUS or IUD).

You cannot get BV from hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.

Testing for bacterial vaginosis

A doctor or nurse may be able to diagnose BV by a description of your symptoms and by examining your vagina.

They may also take a sample of cells from your vagina, by brushing a cotton bud or a small plastic loop over the inside of the vagina. It may be a little uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful. You will normally get your result within a week.

They may also test the acidity (pH level) of your vagina because BV causes the acidity of your vagina to change.

Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests will not detect BV.

You can be tested and receive treatment for BV at some Brook services, your GP surgery or at GUM or sexual health clinics. Find your nearest clinic using our find a service tool.

Treatment of bacterial vaginosis

BV can go away by itself but is easily treated with antibiotics.

Alternatively, you may be given a cream or gel that you use in the vagina for around a week.

BV is not serious unless you are pregnant when it can cause complications. But don’t worry, it can still be safely treated. Make sure you inform the doctor or nurse if you are pregnant so that they can take this into consideration.

It is not uncommon for people to experience repeated episodes of BV. If you use an IUD or IUS then your doctor or nurse may recommend you try a different method.


Some of these creams can weaken the latex in condoms, diaphragms and caps but ask the doctor or nurse who gives you the cream for more advice.

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