What’s Normal

It is normal to have some vaginal discharge, because the vagina stays moist as part of its self-cleansing mechanism. The normal moist discharge clears dead cells and bacteria from the vagina. It comes mainly from glands in the cervix (the neck of the womb), and is slightly acidic, which helps to keep infections at bay. The acidity results from lactic acid, formed by friendly bacteria as they break down sugars.

On average, a woman discharges from her vagina about 2 grams of dead cells and about 3 grams of mucus every day, but the amount of normal discharge varies from woman to woman, and with the stages of the menstrual cycle, with age, and with use of hormonal contraceptives. Many women notice that, during the week following a period, there is hardly any discharge, and what there is has a thick consistency. Towards the middle of the cycle (about 2 weeks after the start of a period) the amount increases and it becomes thin, slippery and clear, like uncooked egg white. When this discharge is exposed to the air, it becomes brownish-yellow, so it is normal to find a yellowish stain on your knickers in the middle of the monthly cycle. There may also be a feeling of moistness and stickiness. Normal discharge does not smell, and does not cause any irritation or itching.

Discharge also increases during pregnancy. And during sexual excitement, vaginal discharge becomes very profuse because two glands near the vaginal opening (Bartholin’s glands) secrete additional slippery mucus, which acts as a lubricant for sexual intercourse.

What’s Not Normal

A discharge is likely to be abnormal if:

  • it smells fishy
  • it is thick and white, like cottage cheese
  • it is greenish and smells foul
  • there is blood in it (except when you have a period)
  • it is itchy
  • you have any genital sores or ulcers
  • you have abdominal pain or pain on intercourse
  • it started soon after you had unprotected sex with someone who could have passed on a sexually transmitted infection.

Causes of Abnormal Vaginal Discharge

Type of dischargePossible causes
Thick and whiteNormal in some women
Thrush (Candida infection)
ItchyThrush (Candida infection)
SmellyBacterial vaginosis
Forgotten tampon

Bacterial vaginosis is a very common cause of vaginal discharge. The discharge smells fishy. You will find more information about bacterial vaginosis in the section on genital infections.

Thrush is caused by the yeast Candida albicans. The main symptom of thrush is itching, but it can cause a thick, whitish discharge. You will find more information about thrush in the section on genital infections.

Forgotten tampons. ‘Lost’ tampons are quite a common cause of discharge. It is easy to forget to remove the last tampon at the end of a period. After a week or two, the tampon begins to fester, and there will be a foul-smelling discharge.

If you have an old tampon in place, remove it as soon as possible. You may find it easier to do this if you squat and bear down. If you are unable reach it to remove it, you should see a healthcare practitioner to remove it as soon as possible. If your discharge continues for more than a couple of days, see your doctor or visit a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic.

Gonorrhoea is one of the most infectious sexually transmitted infections. It is caused by infection with the Gonococcus bacterium. You will find more information about gonorrhoea in the section on genital infections. If you think you have this infection, you should visit a GUM clinic for treatment and to be checked for other infections. You should not have unprotected sexual intercourse until you have been treated, and your partner should be checked and treated, too.

Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny amoeba-like (protozoan) organism called Trichomonas vaginalis. You will find more information about trichomoniasis in the section on genital infections. If you think you have this infection, you should visit a GUM clinic for treatment and to be checked for other infections. You should not have unprotected sexual intercourse until you have been treated, and your partner should be checked and treated, too.

What to Do If You Have Vaginal Discharge

  • For any vaginal problem, you must take care to avoid substances that may cause more irritation. These are the same as those that can cause vulval irritation.
  • During a period, change tampons or sanitary pads frequently (at least two or three times a day), and do not use tampons when you are not having your period.
  • Talk to your partner. Ask if he has any discharge from the urethra (the opening at the end of the penis) or any soreness or irritation of the penis. If his answer is ‘yes’, or if there is any reason to think that he might have a sexually transmitted infection, he should go to a GUM clinic for a check-up. Do not have sex until the problem has been sorted out.
  • If your discharge is thick and white and itchy, it may be thrush, so you could try an anti-thrush cream or tablet from a pharmacist. However, do not persist with an anti-thrush cream from the pharmacist if it does not resolve the problem in a day or two, or if the discharge returns. Look at the information about thrush in the genital infections section, then see your doctor or go to a clinic to get a proper diagnosis.
  • The best plan is to visit a GUM clinic for a check-up. The clinic can do on-the-spot-tests for most causes of vaginal discharge, and you can attend without being referred by your family doctor. You should definitely go to a GUM clinic if you think that you might have a sexually transmitted infection (for example if you have had unprotected sex with a new partner, or if your partner has discharge or soreness of his penis).

How Your Doctor or the Clinic Can Help with Vaginal Discharge

Usually, the doctor will look at the vulva for any signs of thrush, and will then insert a hollow plastic or metal tube (speculum) into the vagina, in order to look at your vagina (rather like having a smear). Samples of the discharge can be taken by wiping with cotton-wool swabs.

A family doctor will usually have to send the swabs to a laboratory, so it may be some days before the result is available. A sexual health clinic can look at the samples under the microscope straight away, and can usually tell you the diagnosis within half an hour, though they are also sent to the main laboratory for confirmation. Do not be surprised if you see the doctor or nurse testing the acidity of the discharge with litmus paper, or mixing some of it with a liquid (potassium hydroxide) on a glass slide and then sniffing it; these are tests for bacterial vaginosis.

Each cause of vaginal discharge has its own proper treatment, which could be a cream or tablet, and it is important to follow the treatment instructions from your doctor or the clinic very carefully. If you are asked to return for another check-up, it is important that you do so, even if the discharge has gone. The clinic may be checking for gonorrhoea, which can damage your fallopian tubes and/or infect a future sexual partner without you having any further symptoms.


First published on: embarrassingproblems.com
Reviewed and edited by: Dr Laura Gush
Last updated: May 2021

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