Just when you thought it would be all clean and fresh down there after your period, you start getting vaginal discharges that can range from clear to milky white or unusual colours like yellow, green, or brown. What exactly is vaginal discharge? When is it normal, and when should you start worrying?
Read on to get a better understanding of this prevalent gynaecological condition.
Is Vaginal Discharge Normal?
Yes, it is! In fact, vaginal discharge is part of a healthy reproductive system. Normal physiological vaginal discharge is a clear or whitish fluid that keeps the vagina moist and protects it from infection. Discharge can come from the uterus, cervix, or vagina, which flows out of the vagina, carrying old cells from the vagina wall. While fluid from the vagina is common, varying characteristics like consistency, colour, texture, and smell can point to either a healthy discharge or an underlying issue.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician Ho Li Ying, normal vaginal discharge (leukorrhea) is milky white or clear, sticky, and odourless.
“Leukorrhea is usually transparent and stretchy, akin to egg whites,” physician Ho says. “Women produce a small amount of leukorrhea during ovulation or on the fourteenth day of their menstrual cycle. However, take note if there are changes to vaginal discharge as they indicate abnormalities.”
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge Causes
A primary cause of unusual vaginal discharge is vaginitis, which refers to infection or inflammation of the vagina. The 4 types of vaginitis affecting a healthy vagina are distinguishable by their abnormal characteristics and colours:
1. White tofu-like vaginal discharge: Vulvovaginal Candidiasis (VVC)
Candida is a yeast or fungus that typically resides on our skin and in our body – like the gut, throat or mouth, and vagina. Usually, they don’t cause any problems. However, they can multiply when the environment changes, triggering a sudden growth. In the vagina, this is caused by varied factors like immune deficiency, environmental pollution, fabric contamination, or poor personal hygiene, resulting in “candida vaginitis” and “vaginal candidiasis.
Common symptoms: Women with this infection tend to experience extreme itchiness, burning pain around the vulva, and pain when urinating and during sexual intercourse. There is also increased vaginal secretions with tofu-like properties, but without any odour. Symptoms can also include swelling of the vagina, which is caused by inflammation.
2. Yellow or greenish, foamy vaginal discharge: Trichomoniasis
Trichomonas vaginalis causes Trichomoniasis, a contagious infection that spreads directly through sexual intercourse or public facilities like gym shower stalls and swimming pools. Women should seek treatment immediately because the parasite destroys sperm, leading to fertility issues.
Common symptoms: I the vulva, increased discharge with a texture that appears thin, foamy, or yellowish or greenish in colour. If the vagina has infection, there may be lower body pain during sex. Frequent or painful urination may also occur as the parasite can also infect the urethra. In this condition, the vagina will also show signs of inflammation known as “strawberry cervix”.
3. Greyish, smelly vaginal discharge: Bacterial Vaginosis
Bacterial infections can happen, especially when vaginal flora is out of balance due to the overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. These bacteria can also spread through facilities like public toilets.
Common symptoms: Increased vaginal discharge that is greyish and has a fishy smell, accompanied by an itching and burning sensation. Sex can aggravate these symptoms. Unlike other infections, the vagina will not have any signs of inflammation.
4. Light-yellow, watery, and foul-smelling vaginal discharge: Atrophic Vaginitis
Due to lower oestrogen levels, postmenopausal women may experience atrophic or senile vaginitis, wherein vaginal tissue is inflamed.
Common symptoms: Discharge is watery, thin, and appears in a pale shade of yellow. There is also a foul smell accompanied by itching or burning around the vulva, vaginal dryness, and pain during sexual intercourse.
Treatments for Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
Various treatments are available depending on what causes the abnormal vaginal discharge. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics for bacterial vaginosis and Trichomoniasis. For yeast infection or candidiasis, you can apply antifungal creams inside the vagina or take antifungal medicines orally. For Atrophic Vaginitis, topical vaginal oestrogen is usually recommended.
“In addition to diagnosing the type of vaginitis based on symptoms, patients would also need a secretion test or vaginal examination,” physician Ho notes, adding a warning against self-medication with OTC medicines. “Blind consumption of medications can prolong the disease and will result in drug resistance. When bacteria and parasites become immune to the medicine, it will reduce the effectiveness of future treatments. Therefore, seek professional medical advice first.”
TCM as an Alternative Treatment
The TCM approach for vaginitis emphasises strengthening the body system and removing pathogens. According to physician Ho, the treatment includes a shower or bath infused with a Chinese medicine concoction and consuming herbal formula to replenish vitality. This enhances the immune system and dispels pathogens. “The herbs also remove excess heat and dampness, eliminate bacteria, and relieve itching simultaneously,” she says.
The treatments aren’t just for infections only as they can also help with common abnormal vaginal discharges. “TCM believes that vaginal discharge or leukorrhea is linked to dampness, which can be either damp-heat or damp cold,” physician Ho continues.
For women with damp-heat, vaginal discharge is yellow or transparent. It may be accompanied by heat intolerance, bad breath, itching of the vulva, and facial acne. Women who like spicy and greasy food are often prone to having a damp-heat constitution.
On the other hand, women with damp-cold constitutions will have excessive vaginal discharge that is thin, white, or transparent. They are frequently tired and have a poor appetite yet gain weight. “These symptoms often indicate spleen deficiency. Those who prefer cold drinks or foods are also more likely to have dampness in the spleen, leading to abnormal vaginal discharge,” explains physician Ho.
Healthy Diet and Supplements
Some women have normal-coloured discharge, but it may be excessive or little. Others have no discharge at all. For ladies who fall under this category, it is important for them to have a balanced diet supplemented with nutritious foods.
In TCM, excessive fluid from the vagina often denotes imbalances in the spleen and stomach. Physician Ho recommends the intake of Poria, coix seed, and lentils to invigorate spleen and reduce dampness. Millet, Chinese yam, red dates can also help invigorate spleen.
“Bak Foong Pills can also increase warmth in the uterus and ovaries to prevent excessive vaginal discharge,” physician Ho adds. “Additionally, codonopsis and red date tea (tea brewed with red dates, ginger, and rock sugar) can be taken to invigorate qi (vital life energy) and spleen and strengthen the immune system.”
Dryness at the vagina area could indicate an absence of vaginal discharge, which is caused by deficiency in the liver and kidney. According to physician Ho, fruits and berries beverage and herbal remedies such as Bak Foong Pills are good supplements for women with this condition. “They help regulate ovarian function and nourish the liver and kidneys. I would also recommend a Ba Zhen Decoction (consisting of eight tonic herbs beneficial to women’s health) to invigorate blood and nourish qi,” she says.
Preventing or managing vaginal discharge problems starts with personal hygiene. For conditions like vaginitis or bacterial vaginosis, which have a high chance of recurrence after treatment, meticulous personal care is crucial during and after treatment. Below are a few helpful personal hygiene tips from Physician Ho:
- Wear 100% cotton and breathable underwear.
- Clean your undies well and dry them thoroughly in the sun.
- Avoid prolonged sitting as it can generate excess warmth to the lower part of the body and promote bacterial growth.
- Have a balanced diet to ensure astrong immune system.
- Avoid vaginal douching (intravaginal cleansing). Gently rinse your vulva with plain water to keep it clean.
As women feel embarrassed seeking help related to abnormalities in their vaginal discharge, this may lead to a delay in consulting doctors and seeking professional treatment. To avoid deterioration of the disease, it is important to get a medical check-up immediately when you notice odd-coloured discharge staining your panties. As physician Ho says, “Vaginitis is not a shameful matter. You can treat it in an instant as long as you receive proper treatment.”