Health & Fitness

What is vaginal discharge? We answer your most common questions

See what different types of mucous mean and the warning signs of infection

Most women have wondered about their vaginal discharge since puberty. In tandem with our period, it’s the most common health issue women stress about because we all want to know what’s 'normal'.

The good news is that most forms of vaginal mucous are part of the body’s self-cleaning mechanism - it keeps our vaginal tissue moist and cleansed so we can fight off minor infections.

The appearance and amount of discharge varies throughout our menstrual cycle. Read on to understand what’s healthy and when to seek treatment for a possible infection or more serious disorder.

What is vaginal discharge?

Mucous is produced by glands near the cervix (neck of your womb) that travels down the vaginal wall and out the opening of your vagina. Some women experience more than others, but most of us will notice a wet feeling or stain on our pants.

What are the different types?

White discharge is common at the beginning and end of your cycle. But a cottage cheese like consistency may be a sign of thrush.

Clear and watery discharge is common throughout your cycle and perfectly normal.

Stretchy mucous that looks like egg white is a sign your are ovulating. So if you’re trying for baby, this is the time to have sex.

Brown or bloody discharge at the end of your period is often normal. But if you experience other symptoms (see below) it’s best to seek medical advice.

Yellow or green mucous is never a good sign, especially after unprotected sex. Definitely see your GP or visit a sexual health clinic.

How can I tell what’s unhealthy?

Any sudden change in colour, smell, itchiness or soreness is an indication of infection or other disorders.

The major warning signs to look out for:

  • A change in colour, especially yellow or green discharge
  • A bad smell
  • Itching around your vagina
  • Pelvic or tummy pain
  • An unusually large amount of mucous
  • Unexpected bleeding

What causes abnormal discharge and how can I treat it?

Thrush (white like cottage cheese, sore and itchy)

Yeast is always present in the vagina but when it grows out of control, you end up with thrush. Most women suffer from thrush at some point as it’s exacerbated by stress, the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, diabetes and pregnancy.

Thrush is easily treated by anti-fungal medicine (topical and oral) that’s available over the counter at your chemist. But speak to a GP if you suffer from it regularly and it’s impacting your quality of life.

Bacterial vaginosis (white or grey mucous with a strong, fishy smell)

Another common infection that’s caused by an imbalance of the natural bacteria in your vagina. It’s easily treated with antibiotics so see your GP immediately for a fast resolution.

Trichomoniasis (yellow or green discharge with a bad smell, pain, itching and inflammation)

This infection is caused by a parasite called protozoan. It’s generally contracted sexually but it can picked up from sharing bathing suits and towels.

It’s treated with antibiotics but can associated with other STIs, so visit a sexual health clinic where more comprehensive tests can be performed.

Gonorrhoea or Chlamydia (green discharge, bleeding and pain)

These nasty STIs are caused by bacteria so they are treated with antibiotics. They can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection of the upper genital tract, womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries).

So it’s important to see your doctor straight away if you experience these symptoms after unprotected sex.

Genital herpes (abnormal discharge, red blisters or sores)

This STI is caused by the herpes simplex virus so it’s treated with anti-viral tablets that stop the virus multiplying. Your GP or sexual health clinic can help monitor your improvement as this is a stubborn one to resolve.

If you experience pain during sex along with abnormal (smelly) discharge and bleeding (particularly straight after sex), it’s best to see your doctor to rule out cervical cancer.

What happens in pregnancy?

It’s completely normal to experience more discharge during pregnancy. Provided you have none of the warning signs above, there’s nothing to worry about.

Unfortunately thrush is common during pregnancy. Your chemist or GP can prescribe the right treatment, usually a pessary or intravaginal cream. Just take extra care when inserting the applicator so as not to disrupt the neck of your womb.

You might notice an increase in discharge towards the end of your pregnancy. A blood-streaked mucous can result from the loosening of your cervix plug. So if this happens, pack your bags in preparation for labour!

How can I prevent infections?

Follow these rules for good vaginal hygiene to try and ward off common infections.

  • Don’t use scented products like deodorants, douches or scented panty liners that can irritate your vaginal tissue
  • The same goes for laundry detergent and bath products like soaps and shower gels if you have sensitive skin
  • Make sure you and your partner have clean hands before having sex (having a pee before and after sex can also prevent unrinary tract infections)
  • Wear cotton pants or hosiery with a cotton gusset
  • Remember what your mum told you - always wipe from front to back!

If you are prone to thrush, it doesn’t hurt to take probiotic supplements and eat natural, sugar-free yoghurt with lactobacillus acidophilus (it can also be applied as a topical cream directly into your vagina).

They’re not proven treatments, but these alternative therapies may help women who have developed a resistance to Canesten or other conventional medicines.

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