The experts break down everything you need to know about vaginal discharge, from what it is to when you should see your GP

Let’s start by saying that vaginal discharge is a completely normal bodily function. But despite this, it remains a taboo topic and is rarely spoken about. As a result, what’s considered ‘normal’ and healthy is largely left to the unknown. 

Not only is it completely normal, but vaginal discharge serves a purpose. "It helps keep your vagina clean and moist. It also helps protect your vagina from infection," says Dr Shree Datta, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at The Portland and Lister Hospitals. 

Dr Shazia Malik, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at The Portland and Princess Grace Hospitals, adds: "It also helps prevent infection by carrying away dead cells and bacteria, and preventing unhealthy bacteria from multiplying." As well as keeping the vagina healthy, it can signal when something has gone awry. 

Here, the experts break down everything you need to know about vaginal discharge – from why it occurs to what’s considered healthy. 

What is vaginal discharge?   

"Vaginal discharge is the natural mucus-like fluid produced by the glands within the vagina and cervix," explains Dr Datta. It helps keep the vagina clean and healthy, and can occur at any age.  

The amount of discharge varies from person to person and can change over the course of a month. "The nature of our vaginal discharge varies according to our oestrogen levels, which change throughout the monthly menstrual cycle, as does the amount," says Dr Datta. "You may notice that discharge increases during pregnancy or if you’re sexually active," she continues.   

What does normal discharge look like? 

There’s no hard or fast rule here. "Discharge can vary throughout your cycle, from a clear, runny discharge to opaque, thick mucus-like discharge," says Dr Datta. For example, some women may notice it’s slippery and wet at the time of ovulation. "This is nature’s way of facilitating sperm to travel up into the cervix," explains Dr Malik. "It’s also not unusual to notice brown discharge at the start and end of your period," adds Dr Datta. 

Normal discharge is considered to be:

• Slippery and wet
• Thick and sticky
• Clear or white
• Does not have an offensive smell 

If you’re unsure as to whether your discharge is normal, Dr Datta recommends monitoring the amount, consistency and colour throughout your cycle to establish what’s normal for you and then booking an appointment with your GP if you’re at all concerned or if anything changes. 

Other types of discharge explained

Is thick discharge normal? 

Thick, sticky discharge is completely normal and often occurs during the second half of the cycle. But if it’s thick and white with a curd-like texture, "this is usually a sign of a yeast infection", says Dr Datta, "and you may also feel itchy and sore." If this occurs, speak to your local Boots pharmacist regarding thrush treatment products or visit your GP if you’re experiencing thrush symptoms for the first time, are under 16 or over 60, you find thrush keeps coming back (more than four times in 12 months), treatment hasn’t worked, you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or have a weakened immune system, for example because of diabetes, HIV or chemotherapy. 

Is brown or bloody discharge normal? 

"It’s normal to get a little bit of brown discharge just before or after your period, but if this is prolonged or at other times during your cycle, then do get it checked by your doctor," says Dr Malik. "Very occasionally, your discharge can be a warning sign for something more serious, so if you get any bleeding after sexual intercourse or between periods, do see your GP or a specialist."  

Is yellow discharge normal? 

"If your discharge is yellow or green in colour and accompanied by a smell, it may indicate an STI, such as gonorrhoea or chlamydia," says Dr Malik. In which case, it’s best to speak to your doctor or head to the Boots Online Doctor Sexual Health Services, where you can get discreet test kits and, if suitable for you, prescription-only medicine delivered straight to your door, no appointment needed*.  

Is odorous discharge normal? 

"White or yellow discharge with a fishy odour can be a sign of infection, such as bacterial vaginosis," says Dr Datta. This is a common and treatable bacterial infection – initially, visit your local Boots pharmacist for advice or try Boots BV Gel, £7.59. If this treatment doesn’t work, book an appointment with your GP who may prescribe antibiotics.

When to consult your GP about your discharge

"It’s time to speak to your GP or gynaecologist if your vaginal discharge changes colour, smell or consistency or if the amount of discharge you produce changes," says Dr Datta. "Bleeding between periods or after sex, itching or soreness are other signs you should approach your doctor. Abdominal pain or pain on urinating can be other key signs you should visit your doctor."

To go over that again, it’s totally normal for vaginal discharge to change in quantity and texture over the course of the month – but keep track of these changes and find out what’s normal for you. If you do then notice a change or are concerned about your discharge, book in to see your GP.

How to maintain healthy discharge

"It’s important to remember that your vagina is a self-cleaning organ," says Dr Malik, "so douching is a definite no-no." Steer clear of scented soaps, scented wipes and intimate hygiene products as "these can change the pH and bacterial balance in your vagina," continues Dr Malik.

Dr Malik also advises against wearing underwear at night, "as it can provide a warm environment for bacteria to multiply". During the day, ‘wear cotton underwear and change your underwear after exercise’. 

Dr Datta’s advice? "Wash the skin around your vagina using warm water only." 

*Treatment is subject to an online consultation with a clinician to assess suitability. Charges apply.