The main points

  • Vaginal discharge cleans and moistens the vagina and helps prevent and fight infections.
  • Each person’s experience of vaginal discharge is different.
  • If your vaginal discharge changes and has a strong or unpleasant smell, becomes green, yellow or grey in colour or frothy, thick and lumpy in texture, you may have an infection.
  • There are many causes of abnormal vaginal discharge – the most common being infection.
  • It is recommended you see a health professional if you are experiencing any vaginal discharge that is abnormal for you. There are different treatment options.

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is fluid or mucous made by glands inside the vagina and cervix. You might notice it in your underwear or on toilet paper after you wipe. Vaginal discharge cleans and moistens the vagina and helps prevent and fight infections.

Vaginal discharge normally changes in colour, consistency and volume depending on the timing in your menstrual cycle and other factors such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, sexual activity, contraception and hormone use. Vaginal discharge is normal and expected to be:

  • odourless or does not have a strong or unpleasant smell
  • clear or milky white
  • thick and sticky
  • slippery and wet.

Each person’s experience of vaginal discharge is different. Some people have noticeable heavy discharge and others do not have much at all.

Vaginas have a specific balance of bacteria and other cells that create a slightly acidic pH. Any small changes to the environment can make the vagina less acidic and can lead to an increase or decrease in the number of bacteria that usually live in the vagina. This can cause an abnormal vaginal discharge.

When can vaginal discharge be a sign of something abnormal or an infection?

If your vaginal discharge changes it may be a sign of a problem or of infection. Possible changes to look out for include:

  • a strong or unpleasant smell – particularly fishy or metallic smelling
  • changes in colour – green, yellow, grey, pink
  • changes in texture – frothy, thick and lumpy like cottage cheese, thin and runny
  • pain – inside the vagina and/or on the external vulva, internal discomfort, pelvic pain
  • vaginal or vulval itching, burning, pain, sores, swelling or redness
  • bleeding or blood stained between periods
  • bleeding or blood stained after sexual intercourse.

What causes an abnormal vaginal discharge?

Any change in the balance of the bacteria normally/usually found in the vagina can affect vaginal discharge. Infections are the most common cause. However, not all infections are sexually transmitted. Infections may include:

Other factors that can cause abnormal vaginal discharge include:

  • Certain medications – such as antibiotics or steroids
  • Some chronic health conditions such as diabetes
  • Contraception methods
  • Particular skin products used on the vulva and vagina – e.g. perfumed soaps and lotions
  • Some genital skin care practices – e.g. douching

It is recommended you see a health professional if you are experiencing any abnormal vaginal discharge or symptoms. Treating these yourself may worsen the condition.

What can I do to prevent abnormal vaginal discharge?

Good genital skin care can decrease vulval and vaginal irritation.

Using external or internal condoms during vaginal sex can also prevent abnormal discharge.

What should I do if I notice a change in my vaginal discharge?

It is recommended you see a health professional if you are experiencing abnormal vaginal discharge or symptoms. Treating these yourself may worsen the condition.

To diagnose vaginal discharge or symptoms, your health professional will take a medical and sexual health history and may carry out tests such as:

  • a physical examination – sometimes with a speculum insertion if tolerable and/or a pelvic exam
  • vaginal swabs and sexually transmissible infection (STI) screen
  • urine tests
  • blood tests
  • cervical screening.

You may be referred to a gynaecologist or dermatologist for further investigations.

Treatment of abnormal discharge

The treatment and management of abnormal vaginal discharge depends on the cause and other factors. Your health professional will discuss options with you. You may be offered treatment before test results are confirmed if your symptoms suggest a specific infection.

Where to get more information and support

If you are using the internet for information, only use reliable and reputable websites, such as the ones provided above.

Disclaimer

This website and any related materials are for general information purposes only and should not be relied on as (or in substitution for) medical or other professional advice. You should seek specific medical or professional advice for your individual circumstances.

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Last updated: 26 August 2021