Changes in the colour, texture or amount of discharge can sometimes indicate an underlying issue. Here’s how to know what’s considered normal and how to tell when something might be amiss.
But we know that learning the ins and outs of your vaginal discharge can be confusing, not to mention slightly embarrassing to talk about. So, we enlisted the help of Dr Kirsty Wallace-Hor, a GP at Kin Fertility, to help you understand what’s healthy and what may be a sign of an underlying condition.
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What is considered normal discharge?
“Normal vaginal discharge usually appears at puberty – about 6-12 months before periods begin – and is reduced with menopause due to the rise in oestrogen in the reproductive years,” Dr Wallace-Hor explains.
“Normal vaginal discharge includes secretions from the cells lining the cervix, normal vaginal flora, and old cells lining the vagina” and although it “varies from person to person, it’s typically white or clear and either has no or a mild odour.”
But what if your discharge isn’t clear or white? What if it smells fishy or you’re suddenly producing a lot more than usual? “Changes in the colour, texture or amount of vaginal discharge can sometimes indicate an underlying issue,” which is why understanding the rainbow of discharge is so important.
Usually, white discharge is nothing to be concerned about. It is typically thinner in the days leading up to ovulation and then thickens up when you start ovulating – and more often than not, it is perfectly normal and healthy.
The same can’t be said about white discharge that’s accompanied by symptoms like clumps, a bad smell, or irritation: “Thrush infections can cause thick, white and usually odourless discharge that can have a cottage cheese appearance. Bacterial vaginosis can cause a thin white or grey discharge which can lead to a fishy odour that is worse after sex.”
Thin, white discharge can also be an early sign of pregnancy, so it’s one to look out for if you’ve been trying for a baby.
Again, perfectly normal and healthy in most women. Clear discharge is a natural way for your vagina to clean itself and maintain its pH balance, and it is particularly common during ovulation, the time of the month when you’re most fertile.
Red or brown discharge
“Red, brown or pink discharge can indicate bleeding, which you might see during your period, or in the middle of the menstrual cycle during ovulation,” says Dr Wallace-Hor.
It can also indicate an STI, pelvic inflammatory disease, trauma to the vaginal area or, very rarely, cancer. Additionally, if you’re expecting, red or brown discharge could be a sign of pregnancy complications, including a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.
If you’re not on your period and experience red or brown discharge, you reach out to your doctor as soon as possible.
Similarly to red discharge, pink discharge can indicate bleeding. If it is light spotting, it may be implantation bleeding, which occurs when a fertilised egg implants in the uterus, meaning that you’re pregnant. Other possible causes include hormonal changes due to ovulation or menopause, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or STIs.
Pink vaginal discharge can also happen as a result of cervical polyps, which are small growths on the cervix that are usually benign and easy to remove.
Whatever the case may be, talk to your doctor if you experience pink discharge.
Yellow or green discharge
Finally, yellow and green are two of the most concerning discharge colours. If accompanied by a fishy odour, yellow or green discharge may suggest bacterial vaginosis; whereas if it comes with itchiness, burning, painful urination, or abdominal pain, it can be a symptom of an STI like gonorrhoea, chlamydia or trichomoniasis.
Left untreated, infections like these can lead to more serious health problems, so make sure you talk to your doctor as soon as possible to receive the appropriate treatment.
“It’s important to understand that vaginal discharge is normal. Unfortunately, a lot of “feminine hygiene” products prey on people’s insecurities about discharge and odour,” Dr Wallace-Hor recognises.
“However, these products muck around with the vagina’s ecosystem – with its fine balance of good bacteria – and can increase the pH of the vagina. Even excess cleaning with water on its own – for example, douching – can be problematic. The result is increased infections and irritation, which can ironically lead to increased discharge.
“It’s good to know what’s normal for you. If you notice any changes in colour, texture or smell, particularly if you have other symptoms, like vaginal itch, abnormal bleeding, painful sex, or painful urination, you should check in with your GP.”