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Vaginal discharge: What’s abnormal?

In most cases, vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman's reproductive system. Fluid from glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.

The smell and amount of discharge can vary from woman to woman, and the normal colour can range from clear to a milky whitish at different times during the menstrual cycle.

There may be more discharge if you are ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused. The smell may be different if you are pregnant.

If the colour, smell, or consistency seems different to normal, or if there is also itching or burning, seek medical advice as this could indicate an infection or other problem.

What causes abnormal discharge?

Any change in the balance of normal bacteria in the vagina can affect the smell, colour, or texture of the discharge. These are a few of the things that can upset that balance:

  • Antibiotic or steroid use
  • Bacterial vaginosis, which is a bacterial infection that’s not sexually transmitted, but more common in women who have multiple sexual partners
  • Birth control pills
  • Cervical cancer
  • Chlamydia or gonorrhoea, which are sexually transmitted infections
  • Diabetes
  • Scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
  • Pelvic infection after surgery
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Trichomoniasis, which is a parasitic infection typically caused by having unprotected sex
  • Vaginal atrophy, which is thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during and after the menopause
  • Vaginitis, which is irritation in or around the vagina
  • Yeast infections

See the chart below to learn more about what a particular type of discharge might mean.


Types of abnormal discharge and their possible causes

Any change in the balance of normal bacteria in the vagina can affect the smell, colour, or texture of the discharge. These are a few of the things that can upset the balance:

Type of Discharge

What It Might Mean

Other Symptoms

Bloody or brown

Irregular menstrual cycles, or less often, cervical or endometrial cancer

Irregular vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain

Cloudy or yellow

Gonorrhoea

Bleeding between periods, painful urination

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 odour

Bacterial vaginosis

Itching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva


How does the doctor diagnose abnormal discharge?

The doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms. Questions the doctor may ask include:

  • When did the 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?

The doctor may take swabs from the vagina, cervix and urethra for testing.

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