Vaginas do a lot of great things: They aid in pleasurable sex life, help bring new humans into the world, and self-clean with a natural balance of microorganisms.
But there can be downsides to having a vagina, including the risk of an infection of the vagina. Examples of such infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections. Though these two vaginal infections are different, they share similar symptoms, so it can be tough to tell them apart.
In fact, the imbalance between the normal bacteria flora and yeast is a major cause of vaginitis, an inflammation of the vagina. To help you out, in this article, I’ll explain the symptoms, causes, similarities, differences, and treatments of bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections, as well as how to prevent both.
Differences Between BV vs Yeast Infection
Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections are two different (and curable) common types of vaginal infections. They are forms of vaginitis caused by the overgrowth of normal microorganisms that are present in the vaginal area..
Bacterial vaginosis is caused by an overgrowth of a bacteria called gardnerella vaginalise in the vaginal area, which disrupts the natural pH levels, while yeast infections are caused by the overgrowth of candida fungus in the vagina.
The major difference between BV and yeast infections is the specific microbe that causes them: BV is a bacterial infection, while a yeast infection is a fungal infection. While both types of infection can cause burning with urination in some cases, these are not urinary tract infections, but infections of the vagina.
Neither one of these conditions is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having BV can increase a person’s chances of getting STDs. Both types of vaginitis are more common in sexually active people.
Yeast infection vs. bacterial vaginosis
|Bacterial Vaginosis||Yeast Infection|
|Caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria Gardnerella vaginalis||Caused by an overgrowth of a type of fungus called Candida Albicans|
|May cause a burning sensation when urinating.||Often causes a burning sensation while urinating or during sexual activity.|
|Causes thin white, yellow, or grey vaginal discharge and/or a fishy, unusual odor.||Causes white discharge that is often thick and clumpy. May or may not cause a change in odor.|
|Does not typically cause redness or inflammation of the vaginal area.||Often causes redness, irritation, and inflammation of the vagina and surrounding genital area|
|Prescription antibiotics are used for treatment||Antifungal medications (OTC or prescription) are used for medical treatment|
These two conditions share many symptoms, but they also have some distinct differences. For example, both can cause abnormal discharge from the vagina, a change in odor, and irritation.
Even though symptoms of bacterial vaginosis are similar to those of yeast infection, pay close attention to the look and smell of vaginal discharge to help you distinguish between the two.
Bacterial vaginosis can cause a couple of uncomfortable symptoms. BV symptoms include:
- White, gray, or green vaginal discharge with a strong fish-like odor (the vaginal odor tends to be strongest after sex)
- Vaginal itching
- A stinging sensation with urination
Symptoms of a yeast infection include:
- Lumpy, white vaginal discharge (resembling cottage cheese) with no smell or minimal smell
- Whitish coating around the vaginal opening
- An itching or burning sensation around the vulva and vagina
- A stinging sensation while urinating
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Redness or inflammation to the vaginal area.
Tips for identification
One easy way to distinguish between these two conditions is the smell or lack thereof. Discharge from BV has a distinctive fishy odor, while yeast infection discharge tends to be odorless.
BV discharge is also fairly thin, while yeast infection discharge has a thick consistency, often resembling cottage cheese.
How long does each infection typically last?
BV is unlikely to go away without the use of antibiotics, so always contact a medical provider.
Mild yeast infections may go away on their own or with over-the-counter (OTC) medication after a few days. If a yeast infection persists or is getting progressively worse, seek medical advice.
A prescription treatment can quickly clear up BV or a yeast infection within a week (though a yeast infection sometimes takes longer). You may feel better sooner, but complete the full course of treatment as directed by your provider to ensure the infection is gone.
There can be risks that accompany both bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections, especially if they’re left untreated or aren’t treated properly.
If the diagnosis is bacterial vaginosis and it’s left untreated, you may have an increased chance of contracting an STI. Bacterial Vaginosis can also pose a problem to pregnant women. Low birth weight and/or premature birth can be common in women who have BV and leave it untreated.
Sometimes, BV will go away on its own without any intervention. But waiting it out isn’t an advisable course of action due to the risks that can occur if left untreated. Consult with your medical provider about treatment and follow up if it’s not resolving after medication has been taken.
If you’re diagnosed with BV on a regular basis, this can lead to additional infections if you acquire a sexually transmitted infection.
Yeast infections, on the other hand, are typically easier to contract and have risks that are generally less severe, though they can cause significant discomfort.
To diagnose which condition you have and give you the best treatment, your provider will ask about your health history and current symptoms.
If you’re seeing a provider in person, they may do a pelvic exam to look for signs of infection. They may also use a cotton swab to take a sample of your vaginal discharge. They’ll test this sample and look at it through the microscope or send it to a lab to confirm the diagnosis.
If you use telehealth, since you won’t have a physical exam, it helps to be as specific as possible about your symptoms. Try to share when they started, what they look and feel like, and how you’d rate your discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10. This helps you get a correct diagnosis.
Medication can treat BV and yeast infections, though different treatments work for each.
The most common treatment for BV is a round of oral or vaginal prescription antibiotics. Metronidazole (Flagyl), clindamycin (Cleocin), and tinidazole (Tindamax) are three options frequently used for BV.
You need a prescription for these, which is why you need to see a medical provider. Be sure to complete the full course of treatment to ensure the infection goes away.
For a mild yeast infection, you can try an over-the-counter vaginal cream like miconazole (Monistat) to see if that clears things up.
If yeast infection symptoms persist, your healthcare provider may prescribe oral medication, antifungal creams or ointment, or a vaginal suppository.
Some studies have shown that boric acid suppositories, which are available over the counter, can help treat yeast infections and maintain a normal vaginal pH. Taking a probiotic supplement or eating foods that contain probiotics can help reduce infections as well. Either way, you should start feeling better within a day or two and symptoms typically resolve within about a week. If your vaginal symptoms have not improved after treatment or last longer than two weeks, speak with your healthcare provider. Can You Pass BV or a Yeast Infection to a Sexual Partner?
BV and yeast infections are easily confused for STIs, but neither is a sexually transmitted infection or sexually transmitted disease (STD). Still, it may be possible to transmit them to a sexual partner via sexual contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sexual activity.
Can You Pass BV or a Yeast Infection to a Sexual Partner?
BV and yeast infections are easily confused for STIs, but neither is a sexually transmitted infection or sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Still, it may be possible to transmit them to a sexual partner via sexual contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sexual activity.
People with vaginas are the only ones who can get bacterial vaginosis, so this infection may be passed between two sex partners with vaginas.
BV affects an estimated 21.2 million people with vaginas in the United States between the ages of 14-49, according to CDC.
And because pregnant people have an increased risk of this vaginal issue, it is one of the common reasons people visit their OB-GYN.
People with penises cannot show symptoms of BV and do not require treatment, but it is unclear if they can spread the infection.
A male sex partner may get yeast infections through sex.
Around 15% of the time a person with a penis has unprotected sex with someone who has a yeast infection, a rash will show up on their penis a few days later.
This happens in rare cases, but if it happens, be sure to seek medical attention from a doctor.
Vaginal conditions are complex and caused by multiple factors, so there is no one foolproof way to prevent them. Instead, a mix of habits may lessen your likelihood of an infection or a recurrence.
- Use mild, unscented soaps and avoid any products with harsh chemicals or scents (including scented tampons).
- Avoid douching or any internal cleansing
- Wear breathable, natural underwear (cotton is a good choice) and change it regularly.
- Clean your sex toys after each use.
Outlook for Each Infection
Thankfully, both BV and yeast infections are easy to treat, and the vast majority of cases resolve in just a few days after treatment. If your symptoms do not improve, you could have a different condition.
Contact your medical provider, who may try another treatment or do further testing.
Pregnant people with BV often require urgent medical care.
This is because BV doesn’t only cause inflammation of the vagina, but it can also cause inflammation of the fetal membranes. Research indicates that this can lead to preterm birth.
When to See a Doctor or Healthcare Provider
If any symptoms of BV or a yeast infection last longer than a few days, or if they impact your quality of life, talk to a medical provider. BV and yeast infections are some of the most common vaginal conditions faced by those with vaginas, and your provider will know how to distinguish between them, and can order appropriate testing.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Association between preterm delivery and bacterial vaginosis with or without treatment. (2019).
Bacterial vaginosis - CDC Basic Factsheet. (2022).
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) statistics. (2020).
Vaginal Yeast Infections. (2019).
What Is Bacterial Vaginosis? (n.d.).
What Is a Yeast Infection? (n.d.).