What is vaginal discharge?
Well, first up, it’s important to know that vaginal discharge is completely normal. It’s your body doing some housekeeping, basically clearing out bacteria and dead cells and generally working to keep your vagina clean and protect it from germs. Discharge is also your vagina’s way of telling you what’s happening down there – whether you’re aroused, that your period is coming, or that you have an imbalance or infection.
While the frequency and amount of discharge is different for everybody, ‘normal’ discharge is generally clear or off-white and doesn’t smell or itch. Quite often you won’t even notice it until you see it in your undies.
Stress, exercise, diet, dehydration, medication (including the pill) and pregnancy can impact your discharge. As can your menstrual cycle. For example, during the middle of your cycle (usually two weeks before your period is due when you ovulate and produce an egg) and often towards the end of your cycle, your discharge may be clearer and thicker. Although if you’re on the pill – because you’re not having the normal fluctuation in hormones that you do off the pill – you may find your discharge is more consistent throughout the month.
How do I know if something’s not quite right?
There are a few signs you may have a vaginal infection or inflammation. This includes:
- If your discharge has an unusual smell.
- You feel itchy or red around your vaginal area.
- There’s a change in your discharge’s consistency (i.e. it’s thicker or frothier than usual) or colour (i.e. it’s green, yellow or brown instead of the usual off-white).
- You feel sore or uncomfortable around your vaginal area.
- You feel pain in your lower abdomen, when peeing or during sex.
- There are ulcers or sores on your genitals.
Common vaginal conditions
Thrush (candida) and bacterial vaginosis (BV) are two common vaginal conditions; both of which are not sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
Thrush is a yeast infection caused by a fungus called candida. It occurs when the yeast becomes imbalanced in the vagina and overgrows, causing symptoms like a thick, cottage cheese-like, white discharge, redness and irritation of the vaginal area, and pain when peeing. Antibiotics, diabetes and pregnancy are among the things that can make it more likely.
Thrush is easily treated with a tablet by mouth, vaginal creams or pessaries (which are tablets inserted into the vagina) available from pharmacies. If the symptoms persist after taking an over-the-counter treatment, visit your GP.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina. It causes a fishy smell and a grey/white discharge that tends to be frothy and watery. Over washing and sex are among the things that can trigger it. Visit your GP for a check-up and they can prescribe you antibiotics if you need them.
With thrush and bacterial vaginosis, it can be triggered by a change in the vaginal environment. So things like over washing can cause these things. You shouldn’t use too much soap and shouldn’t wash right inside the vagina – or what we might call douching.
Learn more about common vagina and vulva conditions from the Family Planning NSW factsheet.
Sexually transmissible infections (STIs)
Your vaginal discharge may be signalling that you have an STI. STIs can just present as a discharge or a change in discharge. It might present as irregular bleeding, spotting or pain in the lower tummy area. Sometimes though STIs have no symptoms at all.
I guess the bottom line is if you have been at risk of an STI – so you’ve had unprotected sex – it is a good idea to have a check-up. To do that, go see your GP or a sexual health clinic.
Learn more about STIs from Family Planning NSW’s factsheets.
It’s important to ask people and access information about what is normal if you have any questions or concerns. If you’ve got any worries then you should talk to somebody because often these things are just normal – but it is important to detect anything that actually does need treatment. You can contact the Family Planning NSW Talkline for confidential advice.