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    Types of vaginal discharge and what they mean

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      Reviewed by our clinical team

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      Vaginal discharge is a substance produced by the body to keep the vagina moist and lubricated, and to prevent infection. Most women and girls will have vaginal discharge, and will know it as the white or clear liquid or jelly that appears in their underwear.

      If you have vaginal discharge, you’ll probably notice that it changes over the course of your menstrual cycle. Most of the time a slight change to the colour or consistency of your discharge is nothing to worry about, but sometimes it can be a sign of an infection. Read on to find out more.

      What causes vaginal discharge? 

      Vaginal discharge is a perfectly normal and healthy thing for your body to produce. For most people it will start appearing after you’ve been through puberty. At this time, the hormones in the vagina and cervix begin to work and start releasing fluid to keep the vagina moist, and to protect it from damage and infection.

      Healthy vaginal discharge tends to be colourless or white in colour, and either slippery and wet, or thick and sticky. It shouldn’t have really strong or unpleasant smell. You might notice over the course of the month that it changes in texture and colour, especially around the time you should be ovulating.

      During ovulation, your discharge might become much more slippery than usual, and take on a stretchy consistency similar to egg white. This is because your cervix is producing mucus to make it easier for sperm to enter your uterus. 

      At other times during your cycle, you might have hardly any discharge, or it might appear more thick, white and creamy in texture. Sometimes you might get brown discharge before your period, because there is a little blood in it. All of this is normal!

      When does vaginal discharge become “abnormal”?

      Abnormal discharge is discharge that has a very different colour, texture or smell to what you’re used to – and it can be a sign of a medical issue that needs attention.

      It’s worth speaking to a doctor if your vaginal discharge: 

      • Smells fishy or like rotten meat 
      • Is very thick and white, with a texture like cottage cheese 
      • Is green, yellow, brown or pink in colour 
      • Is frothy in texture 
      • Is much heavier than usual

      It’s also worth speaking to a doctor if you’ve noticed a change to your vaginal discharge alongside other symptoms like:

      • Blisters or sores on the genitals 
      • Pelvic pain 
      • Bleeding between periods 
      • Itching or soreness 
      • Pain when peeing

      What are the causes of abnormal discharge?

      There are a few different things that can cause abnormal vaginal discharge, including STIs, bacterial vaginosis and thrush. 

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      Yellow, white, brown – what the colour of your discharge could indicate 

      Yellow or green discharge could be...

      • Gonorrhoea, which also causes pain when urinating, pelvic pain and bleeding between periods. 
      • Trichomonas, which also causes frothy or very heavy discharge that might have a fishy smell, as well as pain when urinating and soreness and swelling around the vagina. 
      • Genital herpes, which also causes blisters around the genitals and anus.

      White discharge could be...

      • Chlamydia, if the discharge is heavier than usual. You might also have pain when urinating, pelvic pain and bleeding between periods. 
      • Thrush, if it’s very thick and lumpy with a texture like cottage cheese. You might also have some itching and irritation around your vagina, and soreness during sex or when you urinate. 

      Grey-white discharge could be...

      • Bacterial vaginosis, especially if it has a very strong and unpleasant fishy smell. 

      Brown discharge could be...

      • Trichomonas, which also causes frothy or very heavy discharge that might have a fishy smell, as well as pain when urinating and soreness and swelling around the vagina. 
      • Cervical polyps, growths on the cervix or uterus that can cause bleeding. 
      • Problems with ovulation. 

      How you can diagnose your condition 

      If you’re having unusual vaginal discharge it’s a good idea to see your GP or go to a sexual health clinic.

      Normally, it’s best not to try and diagnose the cause of abnormal discharge yourself, as the symptoms of several different conditions can overlap and the cause might not be clear until you’ve had tests done.

      How you can treat the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge 

      There are various prescription and over-the-counter treatments available for the conditions that cause abnormal vaginal discharge, including: 

      • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections like chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomonas and bacterial vaginosis
      • Antifungal medicine to treat thrush
      • Antivirals and numbing creams to ease the symptoms of genital herpes

      To get these kinds of treatments you’ll usually need a prescription from your GP or a sexual health clinic. For some STI treatments you can also use Online Doctor.

      How to prevent abnormal vaginal discharge

      It’s not always easy to avoid the kinds of conditions that cause abnormal vaginal discharge, however you can reduce your risk by doing the following:

      • Use condoms for sex with new or casual partners 
      • Avoid sharing sex toys 
      • Only use water to clean your genitals 
      • Avoid using soaps and gels around your genitals 
      • Have showers rather than baths 
      • Don’t use vaginal deodorants or douches 

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      References

      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginal-discharge/
      https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/girls-bodies-faqs/
      https://www.babycentre.co.uk/l1047500/what-cervical-mucus-looks-like-photos
      https://patient.info/sexual-health/vaginal-discharge-female-discharge
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chlamydia/symptoms/
      https://patient.info/news-and-features/what-your-vaginal-discharge-could-be-trying-to-tell-you
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gonorrhoea/symptoms/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/trichomoniasis/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/thrush-in-men-and-women/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bacterial-vaginosis/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/genital-herpes/
      https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/vaginal-discharge
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chlamydia/treatment/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gonorrhoea/treatment/  

      Authors and editors

      • Reviewed and updated by

        Dr Mitra Dutt
        GMC number: 4569536
        Date reviewed: 26th October 2021

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