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Bacterial Vaginosis: A Silent Threat

A common infection with vague, often undetectable symptoms may be responsible for some premature births. The culprit: bacterial vaginosis (BV), which results when certain bacteria overrun the normal bacterial flora in the vagina. The bacteria can spread upward into the uterus and infect the amniotic sac, making it vulnerable to premature rupture.

For this reason, if you have any symptoms, such as an unusual discharge, or risk factors including a previous preterm birth, you should speak with your physician about being tested for BV, says Sharon Hillier, Ph.D., an associate professor of obstetrics at the University of Pittsburgh. If she thinks testing is necessary, she'll simply take a vaginal smear, which is then examined under a microscope.

If you're infected, you'll likely be prescribed a seven-day course of antibiotics. In studies, Hillier and others have found that treating vaginosis right away with oral antibiotics may reduce the risk of premature birth. A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health is currently under way to determine whether screening all pregnant women would help to do the same.

Despite this simple solution, vaginosis remains a widespread problem because many women tend to disregard their symptoms -- or don't experience any to begin with: As many as 8 to 25 percent of women may have the condition at any given time, but only half display symptoms, such as increased discharge and a fishy vaginal odor. Another concern: Some women may be mistaking these signs for a yeast infection. If you suspect you may have vaginosis, let your doctor know, pronto.