Women's sexual health: Gardnerella
Gardnerella is one label used to describe a condition that causes unusual, foul-smelling vaginal discharge in women. It is named after Gardnerella vaginalis, a type of bacteria that can develop inside the vagina causing this condition. Because there are several types of bacteria that can cause this condition, it is referred to more frequently as bacterial vaginosis (BV). In some cases you will see it referred to as “gardnerella vaginitis”, however in the UK “bacterial vaginosis” is the most commonly used term.
BV or gardnerella is a relatively common health issue for women and is not normally a cause for concern. It can also be effectively treated with certain antibiotics.
What is gardnerella vaginalis?
G. vaginalis is a type of anaerobic bacteria which can enter the vagina and disrupt the natural microflora inside. In a healthy vagina, bacteria called lactobacilli maintain a slightly acidic environment, which prevents other types of bacteria from growing. In gardnerella, G. vaginalis bacteria get into the vagina and replace the healthy lactobacilli, therefore disrupting the acidity.
What causes gardnerella?
The causes of gardnerella/BV are not entirely clear. It is not generally classified as a sexually transmitted infection, however women who are sexually active are far more likely to suffer from gardnerella than women who are not.
Other risk factors for this condition include:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Not using condoms during sex
- Using an IUD as contraception
- Having sex with other women
The reason gardnerella or BV is not thought of as a sexually transmitted infection is because there is no equivalent in men, and because it can occur in women who are not sexually active.
What are the symptoms of gardnerella?
Gardnerella affects the colour, smell and consistency of vaginal discharge. In a healthy woman, vaginal discharge is completely normal. However it should be clear or white and shouldn’t have a strong smell or a lumpy or watery consistency.
In women with bacterial vaginosis/gardnerella, vaginal discharge tends to develop the following characteristics:
- A strong, unpleasant fishy odour, particularly after sex
- A white or grey colour
- A thin, watery consistency
These are usually the only symptoms – and in fact, around half of all women who are infected experience no symptoms at all. Fortunately, the symptoms of gardnerella are not normally problematic. The worst aspect of BV for most women is the unpleasant smell.
Other STIs causing similar symptoms
Trichomoniasis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and genital herpes can all cause unusual vaginal discharge. Trichomoniasis is particularly easy to confuse with gardnerella, as it can cause discharge to have a fishy smell.
If your discharge does not smell fishy but is watery, lumpy, cloudy, yellow or green, or there is more of it than usual then this could be a sign of chlamydia, gonorrhoea or herpes. You should speak to a doctor about any long-lasting changes in your vaginal discharge.
What is the treatment for gardnerella?
Gardnerella can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Normally, the prescription treatment is metronidazole, which comes as tablets or a gel applied directly to the vagina. However, there are other alternative antibiotics that can also be used. If you have an IUD, you may also need to have it removed and start using an alternative form of contraception.
A new treatment that has been touted as an alternative to antibiotics is vaginal pH correction. This normally involves putting a gel inside the vagina that helps to correct the acidity.
What are the complications of gardnerella?
If you have gardnerella you could be at risk of several health issues:
- Pregnancy complications such as premature birth and miscarriage
- A greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Gardnerella/BV that does not cause any symptoms is unlikely to cause any problems in pregnancy.
You can learn more about sexually transmitted infections, and order tests and treatment, by visiting the sexual health clinic at Online Doctor.