Common Disease Under the Radar
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a little-known yet very common disease. It is an infection in the vagina caused by an abnormal growth of bacteria. It is more common than a yeast infection and can threaten a woman’s reproductive health. If untreated, BV can spread into the uterus and cause damage to the Fallopian tubes. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), BV can increase a woman’s chance of contracting HIV if she is exposed to the virus, and it can increase the risk that an HIV-positive woman will pass the virus on to her partner. In addition to the increased risk of getting HIV, BV is associated with an increase in pelvic inflammatory disease after invasive procedures including hysterectomy and abortion.
Unfortunately, BV is not widely discussed, and even though being tested for it is a significant reason for getting a Pap smear, many women do not even know it exists.
One of the main symptoms of BV is a vaginal discharge that is white or gray and has a “strong fishy odor,” according to the CDC.
Dr. Patricia A. Robertson, the founding co-director of the Lesbian Health and Research Center at the University of California at San Francisco, suggests one of the reasons for women’s lack of knowledge on the subject is, “Women are [not] that comfortable discoursing about their vaginal discharge.”
Robertson says that 23 percent of lesbian couples are concordant for BV: If your girlfriend is diagnosed with it, there is a 23 percent chance you have it, and vice versa. “My own approach has been that if a lesbian is treated for BV and it recurs, [it’s] time for her partner to come in for an evaluation,” says Robertson.
In addition to the increased risk of contracting HIV, other complications associated with having BV can be startling. If a woman is pregnant and has BV, there is a significant increase in the likelihood that she will have a premature birth and that the child will have low birth weight.
Treating BV is easy—provided it is detected early. It is treatable with antibiotics, either metronidazole or clindamycin.
Though there is no specific cause of BV, several things can increase the risk. A new partner or douching can upset the balance of bacteria in the vaginal area.
What are other things that women need to know about BV? Robertson says, “That [a] persistent vaginal discharge needs to be evaluated. And that all lesbians need yearly Pap smears from the age of 21 until the age of 30.” If Pap screenings have been normal three times in a row by the time a woman turns 30, she can get them every two years. Contact your gyno for more information, or visit the CDC’s website, cdc.gov/std/bv.