Bacterial Vaginitis and Vaginosis


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Micrograph of larger human cells and smaller bacterial cells.
In this vaginal smear, the cell at the lower left is a clue cell with a unique appearance caused by the presence of bacteria on the cell. The cell on the right is a normal cell.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Inflammation of the vagina is called vaginitis, often caused by a bacterial infection. It is also possible to have an imbalance in the normal vaginal microbiota without inflammation called bacterial vaginosis (BV). Vaginosis may be asymptomatic or may cause mild symptoms such as a thin, white-to-yellow, homogeneous vaginal discharge, burning, odor, and itching. The major causative agent is Gardnerella vaginalis, a gram-variable to gram-negative pleomorphic bacterium. Other causative agents include anaerobic species such as members of the genera Bacteroides and Fusobacterium. Additionally, ureaplasma and mycoplasma may be involved. The disease is usually self-limiting, although antibiotic treatment is recommended if symptoms develop.

G. vaginalis appears to be more virulent than other vaginal bacterial species potentially associated with BV. Like Lactobacillus spp., G. vaginalis is part of the normal vaginal microbiota, but when the population of Lactobacillus spp. decreases and the vaginal pH increases, G. vaginalis flourishes, causing vaginosis by attaching to vaginal epithelial cells and forming a thick protective biofilm. G. vaginalis also produces a cytotoxin called vaginolysin that lyses vaginal epithelial cells and red blood cells.

Since G. vaginalis can also be isolated from healthy women, the “gold standard” for the diagnosis of BV is direct examination of vaginal secretions and not the culture of G. vaginalis. Diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis from vaginal secretions can be accurately made in three ways. The first is to use a DNA probe. The second method is to assay for sialidase activity (sialidase is an enzyme produced by G. vaginalis and other bacteria associated with vaginosis, including Bacteroides spp., Prevotella spp., and Mobiluncus spp.). The third method is to assess gram-stained vaginal smears for microscopic morphology and relative numbers and types of bacteria, squamous epithelial cells, and leukocytes. By examining slides prepared from vaginal swabs, it is possible to distinguish lactobacilli (long, gram-positive rods) from other gram-negative species responsible for BV. A shift in predominance from gram-positive bacilli to gram-negative coccobacilli can indicate BV. Additionally, the slide may contain so-called clue cells, which are epithelial cells that appear to have a granular or stippled appearance due to bacterial cells attached to their surface. Presumptive diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis can involve an assessment of clinical symptoms and evaluation of vaginal fluids using Amsel’s diagnostic criteria which include 3 out of 4 of the following characteristics:

  1. white to yellow discharge;
  2. a fishy odor, most noticeable when 10% KOH is added;
  3. pH greater than 4.5;
  4. the presence of clue cells.

Treatment is often unnecessary because the infection often clears on its own. However, in some cases, antibiotics such as topical or oral clindamycin or metronidazole may be prescribed. Alternative treatments include oral tinidazole or clindamycin ovules (vaginal suppositories).


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: