Fast facts

  • A healthy vagina produces fluid that keeps the vagina clean. In certain circumstances, the vaginal fluid can change its composition, appearance and smell. This is a common occurrence that can have many possible causes.
  • The type of treatment used for vaginal discharge will vary depending on its suspected cause. The conditions that cause most cases of vaginal discharge respond well to treatment.
  • There are strategies that may help prevent vaginal discharge from recurring.

Vagina

The part of the female genital tract, which is a passageway for periods, a baby during childbirth and the penis during sex.

What is vaginal discharge?

The vagina acts as an important passageway between a woman's inner reproductive organs and the outside of her body. A healthy vagina produces fluid that keeps the vagina clean. This fluid is produced by glands in the vagina and cervix. Vaginal fluid helps maintain a healthy vaginal environment, as it carries away dead cells and bacteria and reduces the risk of infection.

The type and amount of vaginal discharge may vary between women and across a woman's lifetime. Changes in vaginal discharge can occur with pregnancy, ovulation, menopause or starting oral contraceptive medication.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Cervix

The lower part of the uterus, leading out into the vagina.

Ovulation

The phase of the female menstrual cycle during which an ovum (egg) is released from one of the woman's two ovaries.

Vagina

The part of the female genital tract, which is a passageway for periods, a baby during childbirth and the penis during sex.

Causes

There is a range of potential causes of abnormal vaginal discharge.

Common causes

Allergic vaginitis

The vagina is a delicate environment; using harsh products to clean this part of your body can affect its normal function. A common cause of a change in vaginal discharge is the use of harsh soaps or gels and douching while washing your body.

Bacterial infection

Although some bacteria are normally found in the vagina, the growth of other bacteria can cause vaginal infection. Vaginal discharge is often associated with bacterial vaginosis, which may be caused by a range of bacteria. Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) with Neisseria gonorrhoea and Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria (the bacteria that cause gonorrhoea and chlamydia, respectively) may cause abnormal vaginal discharge.

Fungal infection

Yeast are normally found in the vagina, but if the pH of the vagina changes, the yeast can multiply far beyond their normal numbers. This is also more likely to occur after taking antibiotics.

Parasitic infection

The parasite Trichomonas vaginalis is not normally found in the vagina. It is almost always spread through sexual contact, but as this parasite is capable of surviving up to 24 hours in a moist environment, it can possibly be transmitted through wet towels or swimming clothes. 

Less common causes

Antibiotics

Chemical substances that kill or suppress the growth of bacteria.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Contraceptives

A device, method or chemical that prevents pregnancy.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Parasite

An organism that lives off another organism.

pH

A measure of how acidic or basic a solution is.

Steroids

A class of chemical substances that have a certain complex of carbon particles. The body produces several types of steroids naturally and artificially-produced steroids are used as medications.

Yeast

A single-celled fungus that can causes infections. Candida, the cause of thrush, is an example of a yeast.

Atrophic vaginitis

Dryness and thinning of the vaginal tissues due to a relative deficiency in oestrogen levels in postmenopausal women.

Streptococcal vaginitis

Inflammation of the vulva and vagina caused by an overgrowth of Streptoccocus bacteria.

Vagina

The part of the female genital tract, which is a passageway for periods, a baby during childbirth and the penis during sex.

Risk factors

Some risk factors for developing abnormal vaginal discharge include:

  • Having multiple sexual partners;
  • Not using condoms during sexual contact;
  • Diabetes;
  • Any condition that weakens the immune system;
  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs);
  • Stress;
  • Use of antibiotics, and;
  • Use of oral contraceptives.

Antibiotics

Chemical substances that kill or suppress the growth of bacteria.

Contraceptives

A device, method or chemical that prevents pregnancy.

Immune system

The organs and cells involved in protecting the body against infection.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Signs and symptoms

Changes in the colour or quantity of a vaginal discharge may prompt you to seek medical advice. It important for your doctor to correlate these changes with your menstrual cycle in order to determine whether they are normal.

Your menstrual cycle is not the only factor that determines changes of your vaginal discharge. Sexual activity, exercise and pregnancy are other very common causes of normal change to vaginal discharge.

Sometimes symptoms can be caused by overgrowth of normal flora or infection by parasites, yeasts or bacteria. These infections may cause a change in colour, consistency and smell of your vaginal discharge. 

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Flora

Normal or pathological microorganisms (such as bacteria) that live in or on the body.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Menstrual cycle

A monthly cycle of changes that a woman's body goes through to prepare for a potential pregnancy.

Methods for diagnosis

Medical history and examination

To diagnose what is causing your abnormal vaginal discharge, your doctor may wish to take your detailed medical history. You may be asked questions such as:

  • What colour is the discharge?
  • When did the discharge start?
  • Does the discharge have a bad odour?
  • Is there any pain or itching around the vagina?
  • Do you experience any pain when having sex?
  • Do you douche?
  • Have you recently taken antibiotics?

Your doctor may also conduct a physical examination to inspect your vagina, vulva and cervix

Diagnostic testing

Your doctor may take a swab during a physical examination to identify microbial growth. Depending on your age and sexual history, other tests could be carried out to check for the presence of sexually-transmitted infections. Your doctor may also consider performing a Pap test to check for abnormal cells.  

A swab helps to assess the cause of vaginal discharge. 

Recurrent vaginal discharge

If vaginal discharge comes back several times, your doctor may suggest further diagnostic tests to check for an underlying medical condition that may be affecting your immune system, such as diabetes.

Antibiotics

Chemical substances that kill or suppress the growth of bacteria.

Cervix

The lower part of the uterus, leading out into the vagina.

Douche

To wash or clean out with water or other solutions.

Immune system

The organs and cells involved in protecting the body against infection.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Pap test

A test used to check for abnormal changes in the cells of a woman's cervix. It is performed using a speculum to reach the cervical cells with a small brush, through the vagina.

Vulva

External female genitalia.

Vagina

The part of the female genital tract, which is a passageway for periods, a baby during childbirth and the penis during sex.

Microbial

Refers to microbes (microorganisms).

Types of treatment

The type of treatment used for vaginal discharge will vary depending on its suspected cause:

Vaginal discharge caused by infection

Vaginal discharge that is caused by an infection is treated with antibiotics, antifungal agents or a prescribed vaginal pessary cream. 

Vaginal discharge caused by allergic vaginitis

Women who experience vaginal discharge and show no signs of abnormal microbial growth may have allergic vaginitis (contact dermatitis). Treatment for this condition usually involves avoiding the suspected irritant. Your doctor may prescribe a cream for symptomatic relief. 

Antibiotics

Chemical substances that kill or suppress the growth of bacteria.

Vaginal pessary

A small and soft removable device that is inserted into the vagina to deliver medications and/or provide support to the female genital tract. Also known as a pessary or vaginal ring.

Microbial

Refers to microbes (microorganisms).

Potential complications

Chlamydia or gonorrhoea infections, if left untreated, may progress to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to other complications, including infertility.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Infertility

Inability to produce offspring.

Prognosis

The conditions that cause most cases of vaginal discharge respond well to treatment. Some cases of infection may return. Your doctor can discuss with you strategies to reduce your chance of recurring vaginal discharge.

Prevention

Once the cause of your vaginal discharge has been identified, there are strategies that may help prevent its recurrence. Some ways of reducing your risk of experiencing vaginal discharge may include:

  • Avoiding douching;
  • When going to the bathroom, wiping from front to back to avoid contaminating your vagina with bacteria;
  • Choosing underwear made from natural fibres, to avoid excessive sweating, and;
  • Practising safe sex to reduce the chance of acquiring sexually-transmitted infections.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Vagina

The part of the female genital tract, which is a passageway for periods, a baby during childbirth and the penis during sex.