Gardnerella is also known as Gardnerella Vaginalis or bacterial vaginosis, referring to the fact that Gardnerella is an infection that occurs in the woman's vagina. The bacterial infection can cause a grayish vaginal discharge, a pungent odor, vaginal itching, or vaginal irritation; sometimes these symptoms are not noticeable, sometimes they occur intermittently or after menses or intercourse. Women often misdiagnose the infection, assuming it to be a yeast infection and treat themselves with non-prescription medications. Thus Gardnerella is less reported but more common than most women would think.
Normally, the body creates its own natural balance of bacteria within the vagina. Normal pH levels keep the vagina mildly acidic and defend the vagina, limiting the growth of unhealthy bacteria. About half of all women actually have the Gardneralla bacteria in their body but never know it. However, when the body's defenses are lowered certain bacteria can proliferate. These bacteria include, not just the Gardnerella vaginalis strain, but often additional harmful bacteria such as the Gardnerella mobiluncus, Mycoplasma hominis strains.
The Antibiotic Effect
As noted, Gardnerella can develop when there is an imbalance in the natural bacteria within the vagina. One of the causes of that imbalance results from the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics that may be necessary to fight another problem, but can have the inadvertent result of also destroying healthy bacteria which are part of the vagina's normal environment. Thus, that loss of healthy bacteria can leave the way open for infection by others.
Although tampons are normally safe to use, a woman should use them according to directions and avoid overuse. If tampons are used continually, even when a period is scant, or if one is forgotten at the end of the period and left in the vagina, they can dry and irritate it, leaving the way open for bacterial infection.
Certain contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive sponges, and diaphragms can alter the natural balance of bacteria that reside in the vagina. In addition, vaginal douching and products that contain nonoxynol-9 can affect the balance of acid and bacteria. Such products should be limited in use and used carefully.
It has not been proven that sexual activity causes the Gardnerella infection. In some cases, the bacterial infection has seemed to be more prevalent in women with multiple partners. Others relate the infection to having a new sexual relationship. Still other women may already have had other sexually-transmitted diseases. However, Garnerella also occurs in women who are virgins.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that bacterial infection of the vagina is the most common infection in young adult women who may become pregnant. And, it often occurs in pregnancy but the infection can result in premature labor or infect the uterus after delivery. For this reason, and because the infection often does not show symptoms, prenatal visits can include tests for bacterial infections.
Gardnerella infections may not cause symptoms or an infection can disappear without treatment when the body's natural defenses take over. However, if a woman knows she has it, treatment will prevent more dangerous complications. For example, the infection has been associated with a greater risk for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility, ectopic pregnancies, premature births, or babies with a low birth weight. The infection may also increase the risk of being infected, or infecting a partner, with a sexually-transmitted disease such as HIV, gonorrhea, herpes simplex virus, or chlamydia.