When I was in my early twenties, my vagina got sick. It was itchy, had an odor, there was discharge, and it was otherwise very unpleasant.
At first I thought it was just a yeast infection, so I went to the store and got the usual week-long course of treatment. (There are other options, but it was the cheapest, and I was a poor grad student.)
It didn’t help.
Then I got scared. I was in what I thought was a monogamous relationship, but maybe I was very wrong. Maybe I’d fallen victim to trusting someone I shouldn’t have. Maybe I’d become just another sexually transmitted infection (STI) statistic.
Fortunately, I opted to go to the health clinic at school before throwing my boyfriend’s things out the window or burning any gift he’d ever gotten me. (Those potential responses seemed completely appropriate at the time.) After having an exam, the doctor said I had a common issue: No STIs, but I did have bacterial overgrowth.
The doc wrote me a script for the intravaginal version of an antibiotic. I was relieved it wasn’t an STI, and after a course of treatment, I’d be able to resume a normal sex life. But that relief didn’t last long.
You see, once you’ve thrown your vaginal pH out of whack enough to get bacterial overgrowth one time, it can become easier to get it again. Guess what? A few weeks later I was back at the health clinic. And the results were the same.
This time the doc put me on a longer course of antibiotic gel treatment, thinking maybe the first round hadn’t been enough to completely kick the infection. She also mentioned I might want to use condoms for a while after the infection cleared up. (Studies from the journal Epidemiology show that the use of condoms is associated with a decrease in the risk for bacterial overgrowth.)
A month went by. We used the condoms until they ran out and then we resumed having unprotected sex. A few weeks later, the symptoms—you guessed it—started up again.
I was beyond frustrated, but I went back to the clinic, and this time I asked for the oral antibiotic because the intravaginal one was honestly a little rough on a sensitive area and had some side effects I wasn’t crazy about. I wondered if maybe a more systemic approach would work better.
I took the course of meds, played the condom game again, and then—both for good measure and partially out of fear—waited even a bit longer to resume condom-free sexual activity.
But I did something else different, too. I got online and started researching. It was 2006, and there wasn’t tons of bacterial overgrowth information on the web, but I did come across a study by the Journal of Microbes and Infection which had touted the use of probiotics. I’d never even heard of probiotics (which is a buzzword nowadays), but the study said that the probiotic lactobacilli helped almost all the women it was given to in their test.
Probiotics, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, are live microorganisms that can help promote gut health, immune function, and metabolic function. They’re found in food like yogurt, supplements, and skin creams.
I went out and bought some, taking them religiously in the hopes that they would work. But when I ended up back at the clinic, I discounted them as an option. As I angrily took the bottle of probiotics to the garbage, I noticed the tiniest of words: “refrigerate after opening.”
My carelessness led me to do more thorough research. I learned about refrigerated versus shelf-stable probiotics. I learned about the vast variety of strains and the importance of numbers (people generally buy probiotics with 1 billion to 10 billion live organisms). And then I went out and bought the right probiotic for me.
It’s a good thing I did, because I developed a sensitivity to the antibiotic and started to break out into a rash a few days before the course was over. I stopped the antibiotics but kept taking the probiotics for the next six weeks while refraining from having sex—condom or not. (My boyfriend was grumpy, but he survived.)
Finally, I was ready to test out my (hopefully) pH-balanced, healthily-colonized downstairs.
I waited. And still nothing. No flare up.
I’ve continued taking probiotics ever since. I’ve taken them with that boyfriend, through a seven-year marriage, and after my divorce. And now I take them with my current partner .
Basically, I’ve taken the probiotics like my life depended on it. And in a way, it did. A healthy sex life (along with a body that works properly) is not to be underestimated.