VAGINAL DISCHARGE: WHAT’S NORMAL & WHAT’S NOT?
Our team of GP's at London Doctors Clinic are well versed in advising on potentially awkward topics such as vaginal discharge. In fact, there are very few body-related topics that will faze an LDC GP, and vaginal discharge certainly isn't one of them! So if you have any concerns on this issue, or any other issues of a sensitive nature, trust us when we say our doctors will be more than happy to help, in a professional and sensitive manner.
So without further ado, we bring to you everything you might need to know on vaginal discharge:
Is Vaginal Discharge Normal?
It is perfectly normal for women and older girls to have a vaginal discharge. This is simply a clear substance that is produced by the cervix (neck of the womb). This discharge is usually white or colourless has no strong smell, and serves simply to keep the vaginal passage moist and free from infection.
While a vaginal discharge should not be a cause for concern, a change to the normal discharge may indicate a health problem for women.
There is a natural variation in a woman’s discharge, which changes in consistency throughout the menstrual cycle and with the use of hormonal contraceptives. However, there are some changes to normal discharge which could be caused by infection or other health issues. In this article, we’ll look at some of the common causes of altered vaginal discharge in women, as well as what you can do about them.
Despite the serious-sounding name, bacterial vaginosis (BV) is actually a very mild condition. Despite what many patients believe, BV is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Instead, it is caused by an imbalance of the bacteria that live naturally in the vaginal canal. This is known as the vaginal flora – much like gut flora, which is what people refer to as ‘friendly bacteria’ in the gut. An imbalance can be caused by:
- Washing down below with soap or douches
Washing with soap can kill the normal vaginal flora, which makes the canal more alkaline. This change in the environment favours the growth of other bacteria which produces the characteristic vaginal discharge of BV.
Bacterial Vaginosis Discharge
BV presents with a thin discharge that is usually white or grey and is often described as having a ‘fishy’ smell. However, this condition is easily treated with either over-the-counter medication to restore the normal pH of the vagina, or with antibiotics. If you are experiencing symptoms of BV, it’s worth seeing your GP for advice and treatment.
BV is easily treated with over-the-counter medications or with antibiotics
Thrush is the common name for vaginal candidiasis. This is a yeast infection of the vagina, and usually presents with a thick, white discharge and itchiness of the labia. If you have thrush for the first time, or if you feel your symptoms are unusual, it’s a good idea to visit your GP. However, it can also be treated with over-the-counter medication from your local pharmacist.
Is Thrush Sexually Transmitted?
Thrush, like BV, is not an STI; however, if you do have sex with a male partner, it may cause them some itching or irritation around their penis.
Trichomoniasis is an STI, caused by a microorganism known as Trichomonas vaginalis. This condition is spread by unprotected sex, and in women can result in a frothy, green or yellow discharge which has an offensive odour.
Diagnosing & Treating Trichomoniasis
While trichomoniasis is unlikely to lead to further complications, it is also unlikely to go away on its own. If you think you are experiencing these symptoms, you need to book an appointment with your GP. They can use a simple swab test to confirm the diagnosis, and it easily treatable with antibiotics.
Other Causes of Unusual Vaginal Discharge
Unusual vaginal discharge can also be caused by a number of other STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea. While these infections are usually asymptomatic in most women, they can cause abnormal discharge along with pain during sex or urination, and bleeding after sex (post-coital) or between periods (inter-mestrual).
Genital herpes can also be a cause of unusual vaginal discharge in women, though it more normally presents only with small, painful blisters or sores around the genitals.
If you think you are suffering from the effects of an STI, it is important to visit your GP or a Sexual Health Clinic to get you and your partner tested. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be easily treated by antibiotics, while herpes is a viral infection and can be managed – although not permanently cured – by prescription antiviral medication.
Unusual discharge can be caused by a number of STIs
Treating STI's: The Quicker The Better!
It is important to get these treated quickly, as well as get your partner screened for STI's too. As well as affecting your sexual health and social life, uncontrolled chlamydia or gonorrhoea infections can lead to a serious internal infection known as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Remember, vaginal discharge is normal for most women – abnormal discharge is what is unusual for you!
While post-coital or inter-menstrual bleeding can be caused by the aforementioned STIs, and some other benign causes, it should always be a cause to see your GP. This is because it can be a sign of cervical cancer. Fortunately, rates of cervical cancer are decreasing due to cervical screening using smear tests. These are recommended every 3 years for women aged between 24-49, and every 5 years for women aged between 50-64.
Who Shouldn’t Have Vaginal Discharge?
As we discussed before, it is normal for most women – especially those who are menstruating – to have a normal vaginal discharge. However, this is not true for younger girls who haven’t hit puberty. In this group, vaginal discharge may be the sign of vulval infection which requires treatment.
In post-menopausal women, a change in vaginal discharge is also less common. In these women, bleeding or abnormal discharge may be a sign of endometrial cancer (cancer of the womb). As such, it is important for young girls and older women experiencing these symptoms to visit their GP.
For more information about any unusual vaginal discharge you may have noticed, why not use the NHS Choices website, or follow the other links in this article. Alternatively, it might be a good idea to visit a GP to discuss your concerns. LDC have 12 central London clinics, so should never be too far away when you need to find a GP or GP surgery. Book today!
By Ankit Mishra