Learn more about vaginal discharge: introduction
It's normal for women and older girls to have vaginal discharge, but a sudden change in your discharge could be a sign of a problem.
This page covers:
Vaginal discharge in pregnancy is covered separately.
Normal vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge is caused by mucus produced from the cervix, the lower part of the womb that leads into the vagina.
It helps keeps your vagina moist and protects it from infection.
Normal vaginal discharge is:
- clear or white
- not smelly
- thick and sticky for most of the menstrual cycle
- clearer, wetter and more slippery around the time of ovulation – this might not happen if you're using hormonal contraception
Most women produce more discharge during pregnancy and less after the menopause.
Unusual vaginal discharge
A change in your normal vaginal discharge could be a sign of a problem.
Unusual changes include:
- a change in colour – such as grey, green, yellow, pink or blood-tinged discharge
- an unpleasant smell – such as a fishy or rotten meat smell
- your discharge becoming thick or lumpy, like cottage cheese
- producing more discharge than usual
- additional symptoms, such as itching and soreness around the entrance of the vagina, pain when peeing, pelvic pain, and bleeding or spotting between periods or after sex
Read about some common causes of unusual discharge below.
When to get medical advice
It's unlikely to be caused by anything serious, but some tests and treatment may be recommended.
Your doctor or nurse may:
- ask about your symptoms and sexual history – such as whether you're sexually active, you've have had a recent change in sexual partner, or use contraception
- ask to carry out an examination of your vagina
- take swabs of discharge from your vagina using a device similar to a cotton bud so the samples can be checked for infection
- take a sample of blood so it can be tested for other sexually transmitted infections
Treatment will depend on what's causing your symptoms, but often involves a short course of medication.
Causes of unusual vaginal discharge
Abnormal vaginal discharge is usually a sign of an infection.
The most common causes are:
- bacterial vaginosis (BV) – a bacterial infection of the vagina
- thrush – an infection caused by overgrowth of yeast found in the vagina
- trichomoniasis – a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a parasite
- gonorrhoea or chlamydia – STIs caused by bacteria
- genital herpes – an STI caused by a virus
It's hard to tell what the cause is just based on the type of discharge you have. The guide below may help give you some idea, but always see a doctor or nurse for a proper diagnosis and advice.
White or grey fishy-smelling discharge
If your discharge is white or grey, thin and watery, and has an unpleasant fishy smell, you may have bacterial vaginosis (BV).
This is an imbalance in the normal bacteria found in your vagina. It doesn't usually cause other symptoms, such as itching or irritation.
BV is very common and isn't considered an STI, but sex may play a part in triggering it. It's easily treated with antibiotics from your GP, although it's not uncommon for it to come back after treatment.
Thick white discharge with itchiness
If your discharge is thick and white like cottage cheese, not smelly and occurs with itchiness and soreness around your vagina, you may have thrush.
Many women get thrush from time to time. It's not sexually transmitted, although male sexual partners of women with thrush can sometimes get an itchy, sore penis.
Green, yellow or frothy discharge
If your discharge becomes frothy, yellow or green and foul-smelling, you may have trichomoniasis – though this is much rarer than the two causes of discharge mentioned above.
Other possible symptoms are soreness and itching around the vagina, pain when peeing, and pain during sex.
It's treated with antibiotics available on prescription.
Abnormal discharge with pain or bleeding
These are both treated with antibiotics available on prescription.
If untreated, they could lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection of the womb, fallopian tubes or ovaries.
Abnormal discharge with blisters
Unusual discharge occurring with painful red blisters or sores around your genitals may be a sign of genital herpes.
It's treated with antiviral tablets available on prescription.
The symptoms can come back and you may need advice from your doctor about treatment to keep it under control.
Young girls and postmenopausal women
It's unusual for young girls to have abnormal vaginal discharge before they've started puberty. See a GP if this happens.
The causes mentioned above are uncommon in young girls, but discharge could be the result of inflammation of the vulva (vulvitis) caused by streptococcal bacteria.
Abnormal discharge is also unusual in older women. See your GP if you've gone through the menopause and experience abnormal vaginal discharge or vaginal bleeding.
It might be related to the causes mentioned above, but your doctor may want to rule out other problems, such as growths in the womb or lining of the cervix (cervical polyps) or possibly womb cancer.
It's important to pick up womb cancer as early as possible, so don't ignore the symptoms – especially vaginal bleeding.