Vaginal discharge is a mixture of liquid, cells, and bacteria that lubricates and protects the vagina.
Vaginal discharge serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system.
This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.
The amount of discharge varies. You usually get heavier discharge during pregnancy or if you’re sexually active or using birth control. It’s often slippery and wet for a few days between your periods.
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. However, if the color, smell, or consistency seems significantly unusual, especially if it accompanied by vaginal itching or burning, you could be noticing an infection or other condition.
What causes abnormal vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is most often a normal and regular occurrence. However, there are certain types of discharge that can indicate an infection. Abnormal discharge may be yellow or green, chunky in consistency, or have a foul odor. Abnormal discharge is usually caused by yeast or bacterial infection. If you notice any discharge that looks unusual or is foul smelling, you should see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
The most common causes are:
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) – a bacterial infection of the vagina
Thrsh – an infection caused by overgrowth of yeast found in the vagina
Trichomoniasis – a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a parasite
Gonorrhoea or chlamydia – STIs caused by bacteria
Genital herpes – an STI caused by a virus
Douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
Pelvic infection after surgery
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
What are the types of vaginal discharge?
It's hard to tell what the cause is just based on the type of discharge you have. The guide below may help give you some idea, but always see a doctor or nurse for a proper diagnosis and advice.
White or grey fishy-smelling discharge
If your discharge is white or grey, thin and watery, and has an unpleasant fishy smell, you may have bacterial vaginosis (BV).
This is an imbalance in the normal bacteria found in your vagina. It doesn't usually cause other symptoms, such as itching or irritation.
BV is very common and isn't considered an STI, but sex may play a part in triggering it. It's easily treated with antibiotics from your GP, although it's not uncommon for it to come back after treatment.
Thick white discharge with itchiness
If your discharge is thick and white like cottage cheese, not smelly and occurs with itchiness and soreness around your vagina, you may have thrush.
Many women get thrush from time to time. It's not sexually transmitted, although male sexual partners of women with thrush can sometimes get an itchy, sore penis.
It's treated with antifungal medicine, which is available over the counter from a local pharmacist.
Green, yellow or frothy discharge
If your discharge becomes frothy, yellow or green and foul-smelling, you may have trichomoniasis – though this is much rarer than the two causes of discharge mentioned above.
Other possible symptoms are soreness and itching around the vagina, pain when peeing, and pain during sex.
It's treated with antibiotics available on prescription.
Abnormal discharge with pain or bleeding
If you have unusual discharge as well as pelvic pain, pain when peeing, or bleeding between periods or after sex, you may have chlamydia or gonorrhoea.
These are both treated with antibiotics available on prescription.
If untreated, they could lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection of the womb, fallopian tubes or ovaries.
Abnormal discharge with blisters
Unusual discharge occurring with painful red blisters or sores around your genitals may be a sign of genital herpes.
It's treated with antiviral tablets available on prescription.
The symptoms can come back and you may need advice from your doctor about treatment to keep it under control.
How is abnormal vaginal discharge diagnosed?
The doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms. Questions may include:
When did the abnormal discharge begin?
What color is the discharge?
Is there any smell?
Do you have any itching, pain, or burning in or around the vagina?
Do you have more than one sexual partner?
Do you douche?
Physical & pelvic examination
Your doctor will perform physical and pelvic examination to see any sign of disease.
Pap smear test
If your doctor can’t diagnose the problem immediately, he or she may order some tests. Your doctor may want to take a scraping from your cervix to check for HPV or cervical cancer. Your discharge may also be examined under a microscope to pinpoint an infectious agent. Once your doctor can tell you the cause of the discharge, you will be given treatment options.
What is the treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge?
Treated will depend on what’s causing the problem. For example, yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal medications inserted into the vagina in cream or gel form. Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotic pills or creams. Trichomoniasis is usually treated with the drug metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).
Is it possible to prevention abnormal vaginal discharge?
Here are some tips for preventing vaginal infections that can lead to abnormal discharge:
Keep the vagina clean by washing regularly with a gentle, mild soap and warm water.
Never use scented soaps and feminine products or douche. Also avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into the vagina and causing an infection.
Wear 100% cotton underpants, and avoid overly tight clothing.