Vaginal discharge

The symptoms, causes and treatment of vaginal discharge.

By Miss Louise Hayes MBBS (Lond.) FRCOG
Consultant in Gynaecology & Women’s Health
Published May 1st 2023

Most of the time, discharge from your vagina is perfectly normal. It’s an important and natural function of your reproductive system. Normal discharge keeps your vagina clean and helps prevent infection.

How is vaginal discharge created?

Fluid is made by glands inside your vagina and your cervix. It carries away dead cells and bacteria. The amount of discharge can vary, as can the smell and the colour (which ranges from clear to milky white) and depends on where you are in your menstrual cycle.

When does vaginal discharge happen?

There will be more discharge when you’re ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused. It may smell different when you’re pregnant or you’ve not been focusing on your personal hygiene.

When to see a doctor about vaginal discharge

If the colour, smell, or consistency seems quite different from usual, and if you also have vaginal irritation or burning, you may have an infection or other vaginal health condition. It you are experiencing any of these symptoms it’s time to see a doctor

Dr Louise Hayes, Consultant Gynaecologist at Chrissie Yu Gynaecology & Women’s Health

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What causes abnormal discharge?

Any change in the vagina’s balance of normal bacteria can affect the smell, colour, or texture of the discharge. These are a few of the things that can cause these changes include:

  • Medication, antibiotics or steroids.
  • Bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection.
  • Contraceptive pills.
  • Cervical cancer.
  • Diabetes.
  • Douches, scented soaps, lotions, shower gels.
  • Pelvic infection.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Trichomoniasis, a parasitic infection typically caused by unprotected sex.
  • Vaginal atrophy; the lining of your vagina getting drier and thinner.
  • Vaginitis, irritation in or around the vagina.
  • Yeast infections.

See the chart below to find out more about what particular types of discharge might mean.

Type of discharge What it may mean Other symptoms
Bloody or brown. Irregular menstrual cycles. Less often: Cervical or endometrial cancer Abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Pelvic pain
Cloudy or yellow. Gonorrhea. Bleeding between periods.
Urinary incontinence.
Pelvic pain.
Frothy, yellow or greenish with a bad smell. Trichomoniasis. Pain and itching while urinating.
Pink. Shedding of the uterine lining after childbirth (lochia).
Thick, white, cheesy. Yeast infection. Swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse.
White, grey, or yellow with fishy smell. Bacterial vaginosis. Itching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva.

What to expect when you see a gynaecologist about vaginal discharge

Miss Hayes will start with a few questions about your health history and your symptoms.

  • When did your abnormal discharge begin?
  • What colour 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?

Miss Hayes may take a sample of the discharge or do a Pap test to collect cells from your cervix for further tests.

Treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge

Treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge will depend on what’s causing the problem.

  • Yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal cream or gel inserted into the vagina.
  • Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotic pills or creams.
  • Trichomoniasis is usually treated with medication.

Tips for preventing vaginal infections

Below are a few tips for preventing the vaginal infections that can lead to abnormal discharge:

  • Keep the outside of your vagina clean by washing with mild soap and water on. There’s no need to put soap directly in the vagina.
  • Avoid scented soaps, feminine sprays, bubble baths and douches.
  • After going to the loo, make sure you wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria. from going from your anus to your vagina.
  • Wear 100% cotton underpants and avoid tight clothing.

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