What causes different kinds of discharge?


What is discharge caused by?

It's healthy to have discharge from your vagina. Normal discharge is mucus that is produced by the cervix (the neck of the womb). Healthy discharge is odourless and white or clear and is not accompanied by any vaginal soreness or itchiness.

Discharge varies depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. More discharge is normally produced when you ovulate. Lots of pregnant women have what’s called pregnancy discharge, and breastfeeding women may produce more discharge.

If you notice changes in your discharge’s usual amount, colour, texture or smell, then it could be caused by an infection in the vagina such as thrush or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). If you notice any sudden changes in your discharge that you don’t recognise as normal for you, it could be a sign of vaginal infection or more serious problems.

Signs to look out for are:

  • a bad smell
  • a change in consistency
  • a change in colour
  • a much larger amount of discharge
  • itching around the outside of the vagina
  • burning sensation in the vagina
  • pelvic pain
  • stomach pain
  • bleeding at the wrong time in your menstrual cycle.

If you’re worried about any changes to your vaginal discharge, speak to your doctor, practice nurse or medical professionals at your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic.

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Brown discharge

Brown discharge is normally produced towards the end of your period, and this is completely normal. It’s old blood and is produced as part of the process of your body ‘cleaning out’ your vagina following the bleeding of your period. Brown discharge can also appear when you are ovulating and normally occur early in pregnancy (an implantation bleed). If you have recently had unprotected sex and notice a brown discharge instead of your period when it’s due, you should take a pregnancy test.

If you’re over 45, brown discharge can be a precursor of menopause if you experience it with other menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and mood swings.

Rarely, brown discharge can indicate a more serious problem, but if it is something more serious you will probably notice other symptoms such as pain in the stomach, pain when having sex, fever, an unusual smell to your discharge, feeling a burning sensation when you urinate or bleeding outside of your normal periods. If you are concerned about any of these changes, speak to your doctor.

Yellow discharge

Yellow discharge can be the sign of vaginal infection, especially if it’s thick in consistency or has a fishy smell. If the discharge is accompanied by other symptoms such as pain when urinating and itching, soreness and swelling around your vagina, then it could be an STI called trichomoniasis. It’s caused by a tiny parasite and can be treated with antibiotics.

Watery discharge

If your discharge is thin and watery, it could be a sign of thrush, a common fungal infection. If it is thrush, you’ll also notice that you feel itchy and sore around your vagina and the discharge may have a yeasty smell (thrush is a yeast infection). Thrush is treated with antifungal medicine in the form of tablets, creams or pessaries.

Smelly discharge

Discharge that smells strongly of fish may indicate a condition called bacterial vaginosis (BV). It may particularly smell after sex. BV is a very common condition and can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

Ovulation discharge

Ovulation discharge occurs when you are ovulating in the middle of your menstrual cycle. You may notice your normal discharge become thicker and more plentiful. There may also be a pinkish tinge to it. This is normal and is a sign that your ovaries have released an egg. It’s the time that you’re most likely to get pregnant.

Pink discharge

Pink vaginal discharge is usually caused when your natural clear or whitish discharge has a little amount of blood mixed into it. It can just mean that you’re ovulating, that you’re about to have your period, or that you are in the early stages of pregnancy. Rarely, pink discharge can be a sign of infection. Some STIs can cause discolouration of your discharge, and you may notice additional symptoms such as fever, pelvic pain, or a burning sensation when passing urine, which may mean you have an STI.

Creamy discharge

A creamy, stretchy, thick, odourless discharge is often a sign that a woman is ovulating, and is perfectly normal in women of childbearing age.

Creamy discharge can also be an early indicator of pregnancy. As long as the discharge is odourless, it is often just produced as a normal part of the menstrual cycle or at various pregnancy stages.

Discharge after period

Many women produce a brownish discharge at the end of their period – this is completely normal and is just old blood that your uterus is cleansing itself of as part of a healthy menstrual cycle.

If the discharge after your period is smelly or is accompanied by other symptoms such as vaginal itching, pelvic pain, burning when you urinate and vaginal soreness, then it could be a sign of something else such as a yeast infection (thrush), BV (bacterial vaginosis) or pelvic inflammatory disease. All of these are treatable, so make sure you speak to your doctor if you notice discharge accompanied by these other symptoms.

Mucus discharge

Normal vaginal discharge is clear or whitish in colour, stretchy and contains cervical mucus, amongst other things. It may appear to be more ‘mucusy’ around the time you ovulate, which is also normal. However, if you notice a sudden change in your mucus discharge and there’s more of it, it’s accompanied by an unpleasant smell, vaginal irritation, itching or discomfort. It could be a sign of infection.

Cottage cheese discharge

Discharge that is white and clumpy with a texture that resembles cottage cheese could be a sign of a yeast infection if you also notice other symptoms including burning, redness, vaginal irritation and a yeasty smell to the discharge. You may also experience pain when urinating. Thrush can be treated with antifungal treatments, including creams, pessaries and tablets.

Blood in discharge

A small amount of blood in discharge can be perfectly normal. It can be a sign of ovulation. It can also be called an ‘implantation bleed’, which can happen when you get pregnant. A little blood can also appear in your discharge when you start using the pill. However, blood in discharge can also be a sign of inflammation, infection or cervical abnormalities. If it is anything more serious, then it will usually also be accompanied by other symptoms.

Speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about blood in your discharge or any unusual changes to your normal discharge.

Other possible causes include pregnancy, inflammation or infection of the lining of the womb or vagina and abnormalities of the neck of the womb – cervical erosion, cervical polyp and cervical cancer (the latter although rare must be excluded).

After confirming the history of your condition and asking several structured questions, your doctor will wish to examine your abdomen and pelvis, including a cervical smear and swabs for laboratory analysis if an infection is suspected.

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