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By Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe

Chief Executive Officer

Everything you need to know about the colour, texture and odour of a vaginal discharge

While vaginal discharge might cause discomfort for numerous women, this bodily process is completely normal.

Discharge from a woman’s vagina is natural and normal, but changes to it can be a sign of infection or disease.

Vaginal discharge is a clear, white or cream-coloured fluid and is mainly made up of cells and bacteria. It helps to clean and lubricate your vagina and fights off bad bacteria and infections. Women have varying amounts of vaginal discharge – some produce more than others, while others notice very little.

Changes in the colour, texture, smell or amount of a usual vaginal discharge may mean there’s a problem. Most causes of abnormal vaginal discharge are treatable with medication. Normal vaginal discharge should be clear or white.

It shouldn’t smell bad, and its thickness may change throughout your menstrual cycle. A normal discharge may change throughout your menstrual cycle. You shouldn’t use sprays, perfumes or douches to improve the smell of your vagina.

Picture: iStock

Understanding changes in vaginal discharge

Your discharge might change colour, become heavier or smell different. You might notice irritation around the opening of the vagina.

You might also notice changes before or after your period. Changes in vaginal discharge may or may not be a sign of a vaginal infection. Contact your doctor if you’re unsure. It’s normal to have some amount of discharge every day.

You can’t prevent it because it’s your body’s way of keeping your vagina clean and healthy. If you’re worried about too much discharge, wear a panty liner for absorption.

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Other characteristics include:

Texture: It’s normal if it ranges from watery to thick. A woman’s hormones cause this to happen, but infection can change the consistency of your discharge.

Colour: Dark-yellow, brown, green or grey discharge may be an infection or another issue.

Smell: Vaginal discharge shouldn’t have a strong and unpleasant smell. If it’s fishy or foul, you may have an infection.

Amount: Some people produce a lot of vaginal discharge, while others produce less. Certain factors like pregnancy, birth control pills or ovulation can affect the amount. Sudden changes in the amount of vaginal discharge could mean something is wrong.

You may have an infection if the discharge:

  • Causes itching.
  • Causes swelling.
  • Has a bad or fishy-smelling odour.
  • Is green, yellow or grey.
  • Looks like cottage cheese or pus.
  • Causes pelvic pain or pain when you urinate.
Picture: iStock


The colour will alert you of possible problems. You need to see your doctor if it changes colour, texture or is accompanied by a foul smell, itching or burning.

Yellow, grey or green: There may be a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Brown or red: This is usually related to irregular menstruation or pregnancy.

Clear or white: If your discharge is white, but seems thicker than usual or causes itching, it may be a yeast infection.

Causes of abnormalities

There are several infections that can cause a discharge to change or smell unpleasant. These can be caused by having sex with someone with the infection.

Candida or yeast infection: This happens when the candida fungus grows out of control in your vagina. It produces a thick, white, cottage cheese-like discharge. Your vagina may swell and be itchy, and sex may be painful.

Trichomoniasis: This is a sexually transmitted infection you get from having sex with an infected person. A parasite causes trichomoniasis.

It makes your vaginal discharge green, yellow or grey and bubbly or frothy.

Bacterial vaginosis: This occurs when there’s too much of a certain bacteria in your vagina. It can be transmitted through sexual contact but not always. The discharge may be white or grey and have a foul, fishy smell.

Gonorrhoea and chlamydia: You get these common STIs from having sex with an infect[1]ed person. The discharge may be cloudy, yellow or green. If left untreated, the infection may spread, causing pelvic inflammatory disease with pelvic pain.

Picture: iStock

Non-infectous causes

Vaginal discharge is not always caused by an infection so it’s wrong to take antibiotics. Common causes of this are:

  • Changes in the normal balance of healthy bacteria in your vagina and sexual excitement.
  • An object in or near the vagina that shouldn’t be there e.g. a tampon left in for a bit long.
  • An irritation or rash from chemicals like foam baths, detegents, soaps, sexual lubricants or materials used in condoms or sex toys.
  • During pregnancy, you produce more discharge because it helps protect you from infection.
  • Ovulation can cause your discharge to be extra slippery and wet.

Risk factors for infections

  • Sex without protection or with multiple partners
  • Oral contraceptive
  •  Antibiotics – overuse can increase the risk of thrush
  • An HIV infection or a weakened immune system
  • Certain types of soaps, sprays, detergents or douching.

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