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.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Cervix

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

Contraceptive

A device, method or chemical that prevents pregnancy.

Glands

Any organ of the body that secretes substances, such as hormones or enzymes, that are used by other parts of the body.

Infection

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

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 gonorrhea and Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria (the bacteria that cause gonorrhea 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

  • Medications such as antibiotics, steroids and oral contraceptives;
  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection;
  • Streptococcal vaginitis in adults;
  • A foreign body, such as a tampon;
  • Atrophic vaginitis - inflammation caused by a thinning and drying out of the vagina walls;
  • Cervical cancer and other cancers of the female reproductive system, and;
  • Vaginal fistula.

Bacteria

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

Douching

To wash or clean out with water or other solutions.

Fistula

A fistula is an abnormal passage between an organ and the body surface or another organ that is caused by surgery, congenital defect, or injury.

Infection

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

pH

A measure of how acidic or basic a solution is.

Streptococcal vaginitis

Inflammation of the vulva and vagina caused by an overgrowth of Streptococcus 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.

Diabetes

A metabolic disorder that is caused by problems with insulin secretion and regulation and which is characterized by high blood sugar levels. Also known as diabetes mellitus.

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.

Intrauterine devices

A small, hormone-containing device that is inserted into the uterus for long-term contraception.

Signs and symptoms

Changes in the color 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 color, 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.

Infection

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

Parasites

An organism that lives off another organism.

Yeasts

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

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 color is the discharge?
  • When did the discharge start?
  • Does the discharge have a bad odor?
  • 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.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Cervix

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

Diabetes

A metabolic disorder that is caused by problems with insulin secretion and regulation and which is characterized by high blood sugar levels. Also known as diabetes mellitus.

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. 

Infection

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

Microbial

Refers to microbes (microorganisms).

Potential complications

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

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.

Infection

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

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 fibers, to avoid excessive sweating, and;
  • Practicing 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.

Douching

To wash or clean out with water or other solutions.

Vagina

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