Vaginal discharge comes in many different forms and affects all women, but it’s rarely talked about – meaning we’re often left questioning whether a trip to the doctor is necessary, or a complete overreaction.
Whether it’s a change in discharge before your period, in pregnancy or completely unexplained, there’s usually a reason behind your discharge. And, rest assured: every woman has it.
That’s not to say you should keep an eye on things, though – it can occasionally be a sign of infection. We spoke with Intimina‘s Consultant Gynaecologist, who answered all the most common questions about discharge, and what it could mean.Henderson,
What is vaginal discharge?
‘Vaginal discharge is a white or clear fluid which comes out of the vagina and plays a role in regulating cleaning and lubricating the vagina,’ explains Dr. Anne. ‘Discharge is not only a normal bodily function, it is a healthy bodily function too. Discharge has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and it helps remove bacteria from the vagina.’
How much discharge is normal?
Dr. Anne explains that there’s no blanket measurement of discharge, but women should be aware of how much is regular for them.
‘The amount of discharge varies from woman to woman and there isn’t necessarily a ‘normal’ amount of discharge women should have. However, it is worth noting that it is quite abnormal for women to have no discharge at all.
‘The ‘normal’ range is huge and can vary from as little as 0.5 ml to several mls per day. This will also vary depending on time of the month and whether someone is pregnant or menopausal.
‘Throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle the amount of discharge and the consistency of it can change, however, if individuals notice a drastic difference in their discharge which they haven’t experienced before it may be that they have an infection and is a sign of a bacterial or yeast overgrowth. If your changes in discharge are accompanied by other symptoms such as pain, burning and itching in and around the vagina, it may be a sign of an infection too.’
What are the different types of discharge and what does each indicate?
Again, it’s important to be aware of what’s ‘normal’ for you, but Dr. Anne says: ‘A healthy discharge is usually clear, white and consistent, whereas unhealthy discharge may have a thick ‘cottage cheese’ consistency, be grey or watery, brown, yellow or even green.’
These are the different types, and what they might mean:
Clear, consistent white discharge: Healthy discharge should be reasonably consistent, be clear or white in colour with a solid consistency that may be slippery.
Thick white discharge: A very thick discharge with almost a ‘cottage cheese’ consistency may indicate that you have thrush. If thick white discharge is accompanied by itching and soreness around the entrance to the vagina (around the vulva and labia) it is very likely that it is thrush.
Thin, grey watery discharge: If your discharge has a watery consistency and grey colour it may mean that you are experiencing Bacterial Vaginosis.
This may also be accompanied by a characteristically fishy smell which often indicates BV. Women may also experience pain or discomfort in the bladder when urinating, similar to symptoms of cystitis.
Green discharge: A green or slightly yellow discharge may again indicate an infection, with the colouring caused by the body’s inflammatory response. This could be Trichomoniasis, which is an STD. The symptoms may not appear for a month after the infection develops, with other symptoms including soreness, swelling or itching around the vagina which may spread to the inner thighs and pain or discomfort when having sex.
Brown discharge: Brown discharge may be caused by spotting or breakthrough bleeding. It can also be as a result of missing a pill, starting a new hormonal pill or may just be your body flushing out residual blood from your period. In some cases brown discharge may indicate the early signs of pregnancy.
Dr. Anne says: ‘Pain with intercourse is a very important symptom which you might ignore, particularly if it has never happened before. If it’s a sudden change however, then that should definitely be checked out because that could be one of the first signs of a serious infection.’
Should you see a GP about your discharge?
Okay, so you’re worried about what’s going on in your knickers, but is it really worth a trip to the doctor? Well, if any of your symptoms match the more serious ones above, Dr. Anne says it’s important to get to get things checked out.
‘If you are concerned about your intimate health and have noticed abnormal changes which last for more than three months you should seek advice from your GP,’ she says.
‘Change in odour is less common because most infections actually, contrary to what women think, don’t have much of an odour. The most common is BV and that has a very characteristic fishy odour, but most other infections are pretty odourless.’
Good to know.
What are key causes of discharge?
Discharge is naturally occurring, and essentially is there to flush everything out each months. However, other factors can cause it, too, including:
- Hormones including oestrogen and progesterone affect production of discharge from the body cells which can occur during menopause of pregnancy.
- External factors such as antibiotics and hormonal contraception can also affect the production of discharge.
- Infections such as thrush and BV can also affect production by causing localised irritation and inflammation which upset the natural microbiome.
Does your vagina really self-clean or is it a myth?
Honest answer: discharge is not dirty. ‘Your vagina is a wonderfully clever organ and is entirely self-cleaning, with discharge playing a key role in this,’ says Dr. Anne. ‘A healthy vagina will regulate its pH (which should be moderately acidic) to keep itself healthy. It is when this pH balance is upset that the vagina can become unhealthy. A disruption to pH balance is commonly caused (ironically) by perfumed soaps and shower gels and washing detergents on panties.
‘It’s so important for women to understand that to keep the vagina clear and healthy, the best thing is to do nothing. To keep the vagina healthy, my best advice would be to wash with just water, make sure it’s dry after and try to wear loose underwear.’
What is bacterial vaginosis?
‘Bacterial vaginosis is a vaginal infection, caused by an imbalance of good bacteria in the vagina, allowing ‘bad’ bacteria to take hold,’ says Dr. Anne. ‘This alters the vaginal pH making it more alkaline, causing uncomfortable symptoms.
‘Like discharge, Bacterial vaginosis is a very individual condition and there can be a number of different causes. Some women may be more naturally predisposed to a higher vaginal pH that can make individuals more susceptible to BV. BV can also be caused by vaginal douching using strong detergents when washing, hormonal changes associated with menopause and the pill and antibiotics.
‘Women who have BV will often experience a white or greyish discharge which may be runny, alongside a characteristically ‘fishy’ odour which is very distinguishing. Women may also experience pain or discomfort in the bladder when urinating, similar to symptoms of cystitis.
‘It’s important to understand that BV is not a dangerous infection. BV can be a nuisance and may cause irritation for women, yet it’s unlikely to cause any long-term damage or consequences, unlike STIS such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia. BV is easily treatable with a gel.’
Does discharge change during pregnancy?
‘Discharge can change dramatically for many women during pregnancy largely due to the high levels of oestrogen and progesterone which occur to support the growing baby,’ Dr. Anne explains.
‘As at other times, any blood-stained infection should be checked out by a GP or obstetrician, although in most cases it will not point to anything abnormal.’
This post originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com.
Read more body health.