So you’ve noticed a strange discharge in your underwear and you’re freaking out a bit. Stop, breathe and relax. Vaginal discharge among sexually active women is super common, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed or scared about.
Yes, it could be an STI – but it could also be a simple infection, which is easily treatable. The most important thing is getting it checked out as soon as possible so that it can be treated and you can feel better.
There are lots of different causes and types of vaginal discharge. Here, we explore them so that you can better understand what your vaginal discharge is telling you.
Normal vaginal discharge
The glands inside the vagina produce a discharge that serves a vital cleansing and balancing role. Every woman experiences a normal discharge that carries away bacteria and dead cells, and helps to prevent infection. This means that most of the time, vaginal discharge is completely normal.
The amount, colour and smell of the discharge can vary from person to person. For example, you may have a greater amount of discharge when you are sexually aroused, ovulating or breastfeeding, and the smell can be different when you are pregnant, or if you haven’t been super diligent with your hygiene.
However, if the colour, smell or consistency changes vastly, and if it is accompanied by uncomfortable sensations like burning or itching, there could be an infection or other condition that needs to get checked out ASAP.
Watery or white vaginal discharge accompanied by itching
Watery or white vaginal discharge, or discharge that looks lumpy like cottage cheese, could mean that you have thrush – a very common fungal infection that causes intense itching and soreness of the vagina. The discharge may smell yeasty but it generally does not have a very strong odour.
Thrush is extremely common, and most women will experience it in their lifetime. It is not sexually transmitted, and it is easily treated with antifungal medication, either in the form of tablets or vaginal ointment. Over the counter treatments from your chemist can help, but if you’ve never had thrush before it’s best to visit a healthcare provider to be sure.
White, grey or yellow discharge with strong fishy odour
If you notice this type of discharge, especially after sexual intercourse, it could indicate that you have bacterial vaginosis (BV), an imbalance in the vagina’s normal bacteria. Like thrush, it is very common and it is not sexually transmitted. It is treated with antibiotics.
Frothy, green or yellow discharge with an unpleasant smell
This type of vaginal discharge could be indicative of trichomoniasis, a common STI (sexually transmitted infection). It may also cause pain and itching while urinating and you may notice swelling, itching and soreness around the vagina, as well as a fishy smell.
This STI is treated with a specific type of antibiotic provided by a healthcare provider, and it will not clear up on its own.
Cloudy or yellow vaginal discharge with pain or bleeding
Abnormal discharge accompanied by urinary incontinence, pain in your pelvis when urinating, or bleeding in between periods could indicate that you have gonorrhoea or chlamydia, both of which are a type of STI. Gonorrhoea can cause a greenish discharge, though the pain and bleeding are usually more noticeable.
Left untreated, both of these infections can travel upwards and lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries, so it’s imperative that you get these symptoms checked out as soon as possible so that you can get treated.
Abnormal discharge with blisters around the genitals
If you have noticed red, painful sores or blisters around your genitals, you may have genital herpes, and it’s vital that you visit a doctor or sexual health clinic as soon as possible. Herpes can be managed with antiviral medication, but not cured- the symptoms tend to return over time. Any time you notice sores or blisters around your genitals, you should visit a healthcare professional.
Bloody or brown vaginal discharge
Most commonly, bloody or brown vaginal discharge (often called “spotting”) indicates irregular periods. If you have recently started using a contraceptive method such as the injection, you may notice this kind of discharge as your periods taper off. In some rare cases, this type of discharge can indicate cervical or endometrial cancer, particularly in older or post-menopausal women, and it’s important to discuss your symptoms with a healthcare professional.
Most types of vaginal discharge are easily treated with medication, and are not a cause for serious concern or embarrassment. Trust us, doctors and nurses have seen this kind of thing more times than they can count! The most important thing is getting checked out as soon as something doesn’t feel quite right, so that you can prevent a more serious infection from developing.
If you discover that you have an STI, you may need to have a conversation with your current or ex partners that may be a little uncomfortable. However, it’s important to sit them down and be honest about the infection, so that they can get treated and protect their partner(s). If you don’t talk to your current partner and ensure he or she is treated you will end up simply passing the infection back and forth.
Where to go for treatment
Visit a doctor or sexual health clinic that offers STI screening, pap smears and women’s wellness exams, like Marie Stopes. Request a comprehensive STI screening which will identify any health concerns you may have, and will enable you to start treatment as soon as possible. Knowing the nature of your discharge will also help the doctor or nurse to diagnose you more easily and accurately.
Remember, the earlier an infection is detected (especially an STI), the easier it is to treat, so you should test early and often to avoid complications. STIs are super common and even though they’re not fun, they’re treatable, manageable and they’re not the end of the world!