14—JAN—2021 14:00 GMT
s vaginal discharge normal? What does a normal vaginal discharge look like? When should you seek for medical attention?
Well, having vaginal discharge is very normal! The human body is a fascinating machine, the vagina has a self-cleansing system in place that regulates its own internal hygiene. It has plenty of glandular cells
which produce mucus that carries away dead cells and bacteria to keep the vagina clean. Normal vaginal discharge is colourless and odourless. It can sometimes become sticky when a woman is on her menstrual cycle.
In fact, the viscosity of the vaginal discharge is one of mother nature’s own birth control method. The thickness of the vaginal discharge determines the environment that the sperm travel from the uterus to the egg. When a woman is in her most fertile phase, the discharge is watery, thin and slippery. This creates an environment that is most optimal for the sperm to swim. If a woman is planning to get pregnant, they can observe the pattern of their discharge to decide which are the best days to copulate with their partner to increase their chance of conception. This method is called the cervical mucus method.
You might ask next, so when should I be worried? What does an abnormal discharge look like? An abnormal discharge can present differently to your normal discharge in terms of smell, quantity and colour. This could be suggestive of an infection.
The most common cause of abnormal vaginal discharge is bacterial vaginosis (BV). It is an inflammatory condition characterised by an overgrowth of Lactobacillus bacteria in the vagina. Women classically describe it as a thick white discharge with a distinctive fishy smell. The cause is still not fully known, but females who are sexually active or have had a change in sexual partner are more likely to get BV. BV is not actually a sexually transmitted infection (STI) although it is closely associated to sexual activity (1)(2). It is thought to be an upset in the balance of pH level that causes the overpopulation of the bacteria.
A very large salmon caught during a research cruise. Image via NOAA.
Contrary to popular belief, douching (the act of rinsing out your vagina with water or cleansing agent) would actually disrupt the natural balance of the vagina more and can encourage the growth of bacteria. Remember the vagina has a self-cleansing mechanism and douching is not needed! Make sure you seek for medical attention if this happens, the doctor might prescribe you with some antibiotic tablets, gels or cream (1).
Another common cause of vaginal discharge is trichomoniasis (aka “trich”). Trichomoniasis is a form of STI caused by a tiny parasite called protozoan (3). A protozoan is a single-celled organism that feed on other cells and tissues. You might wonder how do you know if you have trichomoniasis? Well, I’m glad you asked. The classical symptom is a greenish discharge that is usually foul smelling. (Fun fact: trichomoniasis is the most common STI worldwide) (3)
Last but not least, another typical cause of abnormal discharge is yeast infection (aka “thrush”). The discharge is known to have a thick white appearance that looks like ‘cottage cheese’. Yeast infection is commonly seen amongst young females who are on long term antibiotics, steroids and certain hormonal contraceptives (4). It is also prevalent among the elderly population and immunocompromised individuals (people with weakened immune system).
A common fear that we might have when we experience vaginal discharge is the thought of, ‘could this be an STI?’. The simple answer to that is possibly. It is difficult to answer that question without the right context. First of all, an STI can present with a myriad of symptoms apart from just vaginal discharge. It would very much depend on your sexual history and whether you have had intercourse with any new sexual partner. As this is a huge topic in itself, keep an eye for our upcoming article where I’ll solely focus on STI!
To end my article, I hope I’ve managed to shed some light on the topic of vaginal discharge and to the readers who have made it this far, I wish you would’ve learned something about how to idenitify an abnormal vaginal discharge and when to seek medical attention. It is important to know that these conditions are preventable, and if they are detected early, they are completely treatable. Remember that early detection is key, so start paying more attention to your body!
1. NHS (2021). Bacterial vaginosis
2. CDC (2015). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines - bacterial vaginosis
3. CDC (2021). Trichomoniasis - CDC Fact Sheet
4. Planned parenthood (2021). What is a yeast infection?