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Vaginal discharge: What’s abnormal?

Vaginal discharge may not be a popular topic of conversation. But you might like to know that it actually serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.

Most of the time vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary from woman to woman, and the normal colour can range from clear to a milky whitish, depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. You may also notice slight changes in the amount and odour of the discharge. For example, there will be more discharge if you are ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused. The smell may be different if you are pregnant or you haven’t been diligent about your personal hygiene.

None of those changes is cause for alarm. However, if the colour, smell, or consistency seems significantly unusual, or different to how it normally is, especially if there is itching or burning in the vagina, you could be noticing a sign of an infection or other condition.

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
  •        C ervical cancer
  •        C hlamydia or gonorrhoea, which are sexually transmitted infections
  •        D iabetes
  •        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 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


Bleeding between periods, painful urination

Frothy, yellow or greenish with a bad smell


Pain and itching while urinating


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

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