Vaginal discharge

Common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge include thrush, bacterial vaginosis, trichonomoniasis or an STI such as gonorrhoea or herpes.

It is normal and healthy to produce a clear or white discharge from your vagina.

This mucus is produced naturally from the neck of the womb, known as the cervix.

The amount of vaginal discharge varies throughout your menstrual cycle (brown discharge is usually the end of your period) and most pregnant women will get a 'pregnancy discharge'.

Healthy discharge does not have a strong smell or colour. You may feel an uncomfortable wetness, but you should not have any itching or soreness around your vagina.

How do I know if my discharge is unhealthy?

Any sudden change to your discharge may indicate a vaginal infection. You should be aware of how your discharge naturally varies throughout your cycle and what is not normal, but obvious warning signs of infection are:

  • a change in colour or consistency
  • a sudden bad smell
  • an unusually large amount of discharge
  • another symptom alongside the discharge, such as itching outside your vagina or pain in your pelvis or tummy
  • unexpected bleeding from the vagina

If you are not sure whether your discharge is normal and are worried about it, see your doctor or nurse.

Common causes of abnormal discharge

There are many possible causes of abnormal vaginal discharge, but it is usually a sign of infection. The infection is often caused by something that upsets the natural balance of bacteria or yeast in your vagina, such as washing inside the vagina, or it may be sexually transmitted.

The most common causes are:

The guide below may help you identify the cause of your discharge. However, it is important to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and for advice on how to treat the infection.

Watery or white vaginal discharge with intense itchiness

If your discharge is thin and watery or thick and white (like cottage cheese), you may have thrush. This common fungal infection causes intense itchiness and soreness around your vagina. The discharge may smell slightly yeasty, but does not have a strong smell.

Almost all women get thrush from time to time and it is not sexually transmitted. It is easily treated with antifungal medicine, which can be bought over the counter from your pharmacist.

White or grey fishy-smelling discharge

If your vaginal discharge is grey or develops a strong fishy smell, particularly after sexual intercourse, you could have bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is an imbalance in the normal bacteria found in your vagina. It does not usually cause itching or irritation.

Like thrush, BV is very common and is not sexually transmitted. It is easily treated with antibiotics. See your doctor for a prescription.

Green, yellow or frothy discharge

Trichomoniasis is a common STI caused by a tiny parasite. It can make your vaginal discharge frothy, yellow or green. You may have a lot of discharge, which may also have an unpleasant fishy smell. Other possible symptoms are soreness, swelling and itching around the vagina, and pain when passing urine.

Trichomoniasis is easily treated with an antibiotic called metronidazole, which your doctor will prescribe. If you have trichomoniasis you should visit a local GUM or sexual health clinic as it can exist alongside other STIs.

Abnormal discharge with pain or bleeding

If your vaginal discharge is abnormal and you have pain in your pelvis or when you urinate, or you bleed between periods or after sex, you may have chlamydia or gonorrhoea (both STIs). Gonorrhoea can make your discharge turn green, although often the pain or bleeding are more noticeable.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor or go to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic as soon as possible for treatment with antibiotics. Untreated gonorrhoea or chlamydia may spread upwards and lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious infection of the womb, fallopian tubes or ovaries.

Abnormal discharge with blisters around the genitals

Genital herpes can cause painful, red blisters or sores to appear around your genitals, as well as an abnormal vaginal discharge. See your doctor or go to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic as soon as possible. You may be offered a course of antiviral tablets, which will stop the herpes virus multiplying, but the symptoms may have a tendency to return.

Young girls and post-menopausal women

It is unusual for young girls to have abnormal vaginal discharge before they have gone through puberty. If this happens, they should see a doctor. There may be a lost object inside their vagina, such as a tampon.

Abnormal discharge is also unusual in older women. If you have gone through the menopause and suddenly notice an abnormal vaginal discharge, see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out cervical cancer or endometrial cancer.

Common questions about vaginal discharge

Content produced by Your.MD

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is a clear or white mucus that helps to protect the vagina from infection, and keeps it clean and moist. It is completely normal - most girls and women have vaginal discharge.

Why do I have so much discharge?

There is no ‘normal’ amount of vaginal discharge - it varies between women. However, the amount of discharge you produce can vary throughout your life. It is common to produce more discharge:

  • during pregnancy
  • if you're sexually active
  • if you're using birth control
  • when you are ovulating (for a few days between your periods)

However, if you are producing more discharge than you usually do, see your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic.

What does white discharge mean?

Normal discharge can be white or clear in colour. However, if you have white discharge that is thick and accompanied with an intense vaginal itch, you may have thrush.

If you have white discharge that smells fishy, you may have bacterial vaginosis.

See your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic if your vaginal discharge has changed in colour, smell or texture. They will be able to tell you if this discharge is abnormal and needs treatment.

What does yellow discharge mean?

Yellow discharge can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection called trichomoniasis. If you have this infection, your discharge may also look frothy.

See your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic if your vaginal discharge has changed in colour, smell or texture. They will be able to tell you if this discharge is abnormal and needs treatment.

What does clear discharge mean?

Clear discharge is usually normal and is nothing to worry about. However, see your doctor or go to a sexual health clinic if you have clear discharge that:

  • has changed in smell, colour or texture
  • is accompanied by new symptoms, such as vaginal sores, itchiness, blisters or bleeding

Your doctor or sexual health clinic can tell you if this discharge is abnormal and needs treatment.

What is brown discharge?

Brown vaginal discharge is often caused by blood slowly leaving the uterus through the vagina. When blood takes a long time to leave the body, it can turn brown, producing a brown discharge.

It is normal to have brown discharge at the beginning or end of your period. However, brown discharge at any other time could be a sign of many conditions, including:

  • a hormone imbalance
  • using hormone based contraception spotting during ovulation
  • ovarian cysts
  • endometriosis
  • infection
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • pregnancy-related conditions, such as early pregnancy, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and lochia (bleeding after childbirth)
  • endometrial or cervical cancer
  • perimenopause - changes in oestrogen levels months or years before menopause

See your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic if you have brown vaginal discharge that concerns you. They will be able to tell you if this discharge is abnormal and needs treatment.

What does early pregnancy discharge look like?

In the early stages of pregnancy a fertilised egg embeds itself into the lining of the uterus. This is known as implantation, and it happens 10 to 14 days after conception. Implantation can cause light bleeding that can look like vaginal discharge of various colours, including brown.

Why does my vaginal discharge smell?

Normal vaginal discharge does not have a strong or unpleasant smell. If your vaginal discharge smells, you may have an infection. See your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic. They will be able to test for and treat any infection.

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