What your vaginal discharge means
It’s normal to have vaginal discharge as it’s your body’s way of keeping your vagina healthy and clean. Your vaginal discharge is normally a clear or whitish colour. But if the colour, thickness or consistency change, it can be a sign of infection that may be affecting your vagina, womb or ovaries.
Your vaginal discharge will change throughout your regular menstrual cycle. It’s a good idea to get to know your menstrual cycle and keep a diary of what’s normal for you. This way you’ll be able to tell if you get more or less vaginal discharge at some points during your cycle, or if anything seems off.
Let’s have a look at the different types of vaginal discharge and what they all mean.
What are the different types of vaginal discharge?
There are a few types of vaginal discharge that can be a sign of different conditions.
It’s normal to get vaginal discharge when you’re a woman. Your vagina is naturally moist and needs fluid to keep it clean and safe from infection. Changes in the colour, thickness, consistency or smell of your discharge can be a sign of a problem.
You can get an increase in vaginal discharge if you are:
- going through ovulation (releasing an egg from your ovaries)
- sexually aroused
- on birth control pills
- exercising (as the vagina and vulva have many sweat glands)
You can have less discharge if you are going through menopause, which can lead to your vagina feeling dry, sore or itchy.
Let’s go through what the difference is between:
- clear vaginal discharge
- white vaginal discharge
- yellow vaginal discharge
- green vaginal discharge
- grey vaginal discharge
- red, pink or brown vaginal discharge
It’s normal to have clear vaginal discharge as this is the fluid that protects your vagina from harmful bacteria. You might notice that you have more or less discharge at different parts of your menstrual cycle. Vaginal discharge will change as your hormone levels fluctuate if you’re not taking hormonal birth control.
When you are ovulating, the discharge is more fluid and slippery and might look a bit like egg whites. This consistency allows sperm to easily enter your uterus (womb) to fertilise your egg.
White vaginal discharge can also be a normal part of your cycle. Just before ovulation (egg release), your cervix produces a fluid that’s thicker, whiter and even a little sticky than usual.
White vaginal discharge can also be a sign of yeast infection, like thrush. If you have thrush, your vaginal discharge can have a thicker consistency, like cottage cheese.
Thrush can give you other symptoms too, such as:
- a burning sensation when you pee
- irritation around your vagina
- soreness when you have sex
Vaginal thrush is quite common and you can treat it easily with antifungal medication. Your partner may also need to get treatment if you have recently had sex together. However, thrush is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) as you can get it without being sexually active. For example, you can get thrush from sweating a lot or wearing tight clothing.
Yellow or green
Yellow or green vaginal discharge can be a sign of an STI called trichomoniasis, sometimes called ‘trich’. Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. If you have trichomoniasis you might not have any symptoms so it is best to do an STI test after having unprotected sex.
If you have trichomoniasis, your vaginal discharge can:
- be a yellow-green colour
- be thin or runny
- have a bad fishy smell
Your vagina can also feel itchy or sore, and it might be uncomfortable or painful when you pee or have sex.
To be sure that you have trichomoniasis, you should do a test. A doctor or nurse can do this for you, or you can use a home test kit to do it yourself. It is best to test for other sexually transmitted infections at the same time, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea, which can have similar symptoms.
Trichomoniasis can be treated with a short course of antibiotics called metronidazole. If you or your partner have had a test to show you have trichomoniasis, you can request metronidazole from ZAVA Online Doctor.
Remember that if your normal discharge dries on your underwear it can sometimes appear yellowish. If you’re unsure of the colour of your discharge, use a clean tissue to wipe the area before taking a look.
Grey vaginal discharge can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV). If you’ve got BV, your discharge may appear grey and watery with a fishy or bad smell. You’re unlikely to feel itchy or sore with bacterial vaginosis.
Your vagina contains different types of bacteria that maintain a healthy environment. Bacterial vaginosis is usually caused by an overgrowth of bacteria called Gardnerella vaginalis. These bacteria are naturally found in your vagina. If you use any products that change the environment of your vagina, like douches or vaginal hygiene sprays, this can lead to BV.
Bacterial vaginosis is not an STI, but as the infection can change the acidity of your vagina it can make you more likely to get an STI like chlamydia.
It’s important to treat bacterial vaginosis as soon as possible if you’re pregnant. This is because untreated BV can cause you to deliver your baby too early.
BV can be treated with antibiotics which are either tablets or creams.
Red, pink, or brown
Red, pink or brown discharge can be a sign that you’re starting your period. If you’re not expecting your period and you get a reddish or pink discharge, this might be irregular spotting. There are several reasons why you might have unusual vaginal spotting, including:
- an infection in your cervix (the entrance to your womb)
- an STI like chlamydia
- taking the combined contraceptive pill
- cancer in your cervix or womb (uterus)
Contact your local sexual health clinic or request an STI test kit from ZAVA if you've had unprotected sex and have unusual vaginal spotting. You should also make sure that you keep up to date with the cervical screening programme.
You might have some breakthrough bleeding if you’re using any type of hormonal contraceptive. This includes birth control pills, an IUD, an implant or a contraceptive patch. This is normal and should resolve within a few days. You’re more likely to have some bleeding if you miss your pill.
If your bleeding is continuous and happens over a long period of time, speak to your doctor. They may suggest another form of contraception.
If you’re getting red, pink or brown discharge that is not your period, you might have abnormal vaginal bleeding. This is a common problem in women and sometimes goes away by itself. If the spotting is continuous or it happens every cycle, speak to a doctor. They might recommend treatment or lifestyle changes.
What causes vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is caused by small glands inside your vagina and cervix that produce fluid. As this fluid moves through your vagina, it takes away old cells from the lining of your vagina. This is your body’s natural way of keeping your vagina healthy and clean. You should not use products like douches, vaginal sprays or perfumes claiming to clean your vagina as these can be harmful.
Your vagina and vaginal discharge will have a natural smell. Smelly vaginal discharge can be a sign of an infection or STI. Getting to know the ‘normal’ smell for your vagina can help you quickly pick up on any changes that are not quite right.
Can vaginal discharge be prevented or avoided?
You can prevent or avoid ‘bad’ types of vaginal discharge, but not your natural vaginal discharge. Your vagina will naturally produce discharge to keep it healthy, so trying to prevent this is not a good idea. Everyone is different, and you might have some discharge every day or you might only get it a few times in your cycle. That’s why it’s so important to learn what’s normal for you.
You can prevent abnormal vaginal discharge by:
- keeping the area around your vagina clean with warm water
- avoiding feminine hygiene products, like douches, washes or perfumes
- using a condom when having sex
- getting tested for STIs if you’ve had unprotected sex
- not wearing tight clothing
- changing your clothes straight after exercise or sweating a lot
- speaking to a healthcare professional to see if you need treatment
Treatment for vaginal discharge
You can get treatment for abnormal vaginal discharge depending on what the condition is. If you have abnormal vaginal discharge, speak to a doctor or pharmacist. They’ll ask you a few questions about your symptoms and general lifestyle to get a better understanding of what treatment you might need. This could be for bacterial vaginosis (BV) or thrush
You can treat bacterial vaginosis by using antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria and restore balance to your vagina’s natural environment.
Metronidazole and clindamycin are antibiotics that are effective at killing Gardnerella vaginalis, which is the bacterium that causes BV.
You can request metronidazole from ZAVA as either a tablet you can swallow or as a vaginal gel called Zidoval. To treat BV, you can either take metronidazole tablets twice a day for 7 days or use Zidoval gel for 5 days.
If you cannot use metronidazole for any reason, you can request a clindamycin cream called Dalacin cream. You use Dalacin for 7 days to treat BV and it comes with vaginal applicators so you can insert the cream.
If your BV comes back after 3 to 6 months, your doctor may prescribe a longer course of treatment.
Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the yeast Candida albicans that naturally live in your vagina. Treatment for thrush is readily available online or from most pharmacies.
Yeasts are a type of tiny organism, similar to bacteria, called fungi. So you can treat a yeast infection with antifungal medications, like clotrimazole or fluconazole.
You can treat thrush in several different ways:
- swallowing a capsule, such as fluconazole
- inserting a pessary into your vagina, that contains clotrimazole
- using a cream for the external symptoms, that contains clotrimazole
It’s more effective to use a combination treatment, like a pessary and cream or a capsule and cream. Applying a cream will soothe the symptoms on the outside of your vagina, like itching or skin soreness. Inserting a pessary or swallowing a capsule will treat the infection inside your body by stopping the growth of the yeast, and get rid of any vaginal discharge.
Your partner does not need to get treated for thrush unless they start showing symptoms. Symptoms of thrush in men include thick, white discharge, an unpleasant smell or irritation at the head of the penis. Your partner can use clotrimazole 2% cream around 2 to 3 times a day to help treat thrush.
If you’re pregnant and have symptoms of thrush, speak to your doctor or midwife before getting treatment. It’s important to get thrush treated during pregnancy to keep you and your baby safe.
If you get thrush quite often, speak to your doctor to get tested for diabetes, as it might be a sign of high blood sugar levels.
Dr Kathryn Basford
Dr Kathryn Basford is a qualified GP who works as a GP in London, as well as with ZAVA. She graduated from the University of Manchester and completed her GP training through Whipps Cross Hospital in London.Meet our doctors
Article created: 03 Dec 2021
Last reviewed: 17 Feb 2022