The intimate itch
An itchy vagina and discharge with a smelly odour can be bacterial vaginosis (BV). Find out how to treat it and how, if untreated, it can affect your baby.
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Pregnancy is a time of hormonal imbalance. This can mean dramatic mood swings – crying when that random model is voted out of Make Me A Supermodel, or yelling dragon-like at your partner for no apparent reason. Hormones can also trigger an imbalance in the good and bad bacteria in your vagina – resulting in symptoms such as itching, smelly discharge or pain when weeing or during sex.

This is often diagnosed by healthcare practitioners as thrush. But, like whenever a baby cries, people say, “Oh yes, colic”, thrush has become the catchphrase to describe any kind of vaginal discomfort. While thrush is indeed common, your itchy vajayjay could also be caused by the lesser known bacterial vaginosis (BV).

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Although the cause is similar – an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the vagina as a result of a hormonal imbalance – the symptoms are quite different.

Thrush, caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria candida albicans, results in an odourless discharge that looks like lumpy cottage cheese. Your vagina is usually itchy and red and you will experience a burning sensation when you wee or have sex. If, however, you have BV, the increased amount of discharge will be white or greyish in colour with a smooth and creamy texture. You may notice a fishy smell, especially after sex and your vagina may be red and slightly swollen.

During pregnancy an increase in discharge is normal; it’s called leukorrhoea. It protects the birth canal and your unborn baby from infection and maintains a healthy balance of bacteria. When this normal thin, milky discharge changes colour and consistency, this is a signal that you have an infection.

Not many people have heard of BV but it is the most common form of vaginal discomfort in all women. Joburg-based dietician Jackie Strauss says that BV accounts for at least 66% of all types of vaginitis; 16 to 30 percent of pregnant women have BV, and approximately 50% of all females will develop bacterial vaginosis.

BV IN PREGNANCY

Why the concern in pregnancy? Won’t it just clear up when the baby is born and hormones go back to normal? Research from Brazil University Hospital has shown that untreated BV is associated with an estimated 25 to 40% of pre-term births, low birth weight (15.5%), premature rupture of the membranes (16.9%), prolonged labour as well as some other pregnancy complications. So, it is important to not only correctly diagnose BV, but to treat it too.

While these are scary statistics to hear, it does not mean that you will go into pre-term labour if you have BV, just that your risks are increased. BV is easy to diagnose and to treat, so catching it early will go a long way in reducing any pregnancy-related risks.

BV, BABY AND FEEDING

Your uterus is a sterile environment, but a vaginal birth will expose a baby to both good and bad bacteria. This is a very important part of preparing your baby for coping on the outside and for feeding. The bacteria “colonises” his gut and helps him to digest and absorb milk.

It has been found however, that babies born via a c-section, are not exposed to the mother’s bacteria and are born with a sterile gut or even pick up more of the bad bacteria, rather than both good and bad. This means that c-section babies are more prone to constipation or diarrhoea, cramping and other colic-type symptoms and illnesses.

Don’t panic if you are having a c-section though, as a baby’s tummy and gut are colonised with bacteria soon after birth through breastfeeding. Bifidobacteria is the most important good bacteria for a newborn, and forms more than 90 percent of the total intestinal bacteria transferred from mom to baby during breastfeeding.

Babies who are not exposed to their mother’s good bacteria through either the birth process or through breastfeeding, have been found to have a higher risk of oral thrush, constipation, diarrhoea, colic-type symptoms and eczema. If you are formula feeding your newborn, choose your formula with care and look for one that is enriched with bifidobacteria, or simply add a probiotic to the feed.

AN END TO THE ITCH

Many pregnancy “niggles” and common symptoms in babies can be treated or even prevented if BV is eliminated by using probiotic supplements. It is important to choose the correct one as one type of probiotic cannot treat or cure all complaints.

Choose:

  • a well recommended brand.
  • an indication and age-specific probiotic – paediatric probiotic for baby and adult-strength for yourself.
  • a vaginal pessary (capsule) and gel or cream to treat irritation and discharge in your intimate area i.e. GynaGuard, but choose an oral probiotic to help with constipation, bloating and so on.

DOS AND DON’TS...

  • Do avoid “simple sugar foods”.
  • Don’t use bubble bath.
  • Don’t wear tight fitted clothing.
  • Don’t wear synthetic underwear.
  • Don’t use a normal soap to wash your vagina, use an intimate wash instead.
  • Don’t use feminine hygiene sprays.
  • Do invest in and use a probiotic vaginal capsule to maintain vaginal health.

If you have concerns, chat to your doctor for help for an itch-free pregnancy.

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