Discharge detective: your guide to vaginal health

Get clued-up on your vaginal health with our guide to your vagina and its discharge
Illustration by Louisa Edge

Do the words vaginal discharge bring out your inner ‘squeam’ queen? If so, take a deep breath, because it’s something you should be thankful for, not grossed out by. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing bodily function that keeps our lady bits clean and moist, helps protect us from infection, provides an insight into the health of our vagina and tells us when we are at our most fertile. So it’s time to understand what to look out for and what it means – here’s how to become a discharge detective.

The clue: It’s clear or white, thick and sticky, with no strong smell.

Other evidence: It probably follows a predictable pattern throughout your monthly cycle, but at times it can feel particularly wet and slippery.

The culprit: That extra slickness is great if you’re trying to make babies, as it’s a sign you’re ovulating and at your most fertile. It’s also usually heavier during pregnancy*.

Solve the mystery: There should be nothing to worry about here – it’s perfectly healthy. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable, pop in a panty liner, such as Carefree Breathable Fresh Panty Liners, £1.09/109 points (20-pack).

The clue: It’s greyish-white in colour and has a strong fishy smell.

Other evidence: The discharge consistency may also be thin and watery, and the smell may become stronger after sex, but there’s not usually accompanying soreness or itching.

The culprit: This could be bacterial vaginosis (BV), caused by a change in the pH of your vagina, which upsets the balance of bacteria. It’s the most common cause of vaginal infection in women of childbearing age and isn’t a serious condition for the vast majority of people. Nor is it an STI – although it may increase your chances of catching one, as it could reduce natural defences against infection.

Solve the mystery: Visit your GP or nearest sexual health clinic to discuss your symptoms or concerns, or ask your  pharmacist for an over-the-counter treatment. Balance Activ BV Treatment Pessaries, £10.99/1,099 points (7-pack), can help relieve symptoms.

The clue: It’s thick and white, and looks like cottage cheese.

Other evidence: Itching and irritation around the vagina; soreness and stinging during sex or when you pee.

The culprit: This could be thrush. It’s caused by an overgrowth of candida fungus in the vagina, which can be triggered by things such as antibiotics, skin irritation (from perfumed products), vaginal dryness during sex, pregnancy and diabetes.

Solve the mystery: Consider an over-the-counter, antifungal medication, such as Canesten Thrush Duo Oral Capsule & External Cream, £13.99/1,399 points (the 150mg capsule contains fluconazole to treat the infection, while the 10mg cream contains clotrimazole to relieve the external itch; always read the leaflet). With treatment, thrush should clear up in a week, but you can help it along by wearing breathable, cotton pants. And use a condom during sex to avoid giving it to your partner.

The clue: An unusual discharge and bleeding between periods.

Other evidence: Discomfort when peeing, and pain in the abdomen.

The culprit: It could be chlamydia, which can be caught by having unprotected sex (so be especially aware if you have a new sexual partner), or sharing sex toys that haven’t been washed or covered with a condom. However, many people get no symptoms.

Solve the mystery: Use a condom when you’re having sex. If you think it’s chlamydia, your GP or local sexual health clinic can do a free test. Some areas in the UK even offer home-testing kits by post. If you’re concerned about any irregular discharge or bleeding, always see your GP. (And for more advice check out our expert answers to the sex questions you’re embarrassed to ask).

*If you’re pregnant and notice any unusual vaginal discharge, always speak to your GP or midwife. If you’re under 25, sexually active (and live in England), it’s recommended that you get tested every year.

*If you’re pregnant and notice any unusual vaginal discharge, always speak to your GP or midwife. †If you’re under 25, sexually active (and live in England), it’s recommended that you get tested every year.