Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Eki Wari on February 20, 2022

Understanding Vaginal Discharge: What’s Normal And What’s Not?

Vaginal discharge is usually white or clear in color, milky, and odorless. Find out what characteristics are considered abnormal and how to treat them here.

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman's healthy reproductive system. However, not all discharge is normal.

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive system. And, yes – it even has a purpose (to keep the vagina moist and infection-free).

For most women, healthy vaginal discharge is clear to white in color, sticky, and odorless. Any deviation from these characteristics may be cause for concern.

This article discusses what abnormal vaginal discharge looks like, what’s causing it, when to see a doctor, and how to correct it using natural remedies.

Is Vaginal Discharge Healthy?

Wearing a panty liner during ovulation or right after your period can help you manage discharge.

Yes, 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. It flows out of the vagina, carrying old cells from the vagina wall. While fluid from the vagina is common, varying characteristics like consistency, color, 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 may indicate abnormalities.” 

What Causes Abnormal Vaginal Discharge?

A primary cause of unusual vaginal discharge is vaginitis, which refers to infection or inflammation of the vagina. The four types of vaginitis affecting a healthy vagina are distinguishable by their abnormal characteristics and colors:  

1. Vulvovaginal Candidiasis (VVC): White And Tofu-Like

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 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 odor. Symptoms can also include swelling of the vagina, which is caused by inflammation.

2. Trichomoniasis: Yellow Or Greenish And Foamy

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: In the vulva, increased discharge with a texture that appears thin, foamy, or yellowish or greenish in color. 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 infection, the cervix appears red and may have small red spots on it, and this is known as “strawberry cervix.”

3. Bacterial Vaginosis: Grayish And Smelly

This can happen, especially when vaginal flora is out of balance due to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the vagina. These bacteria can also spread through facilities like public toilets.

Common symptoms: Increased vaginal discharge that is grayish and has a fishy smell, accompanied by an itching and burning sensation. Sex can aggravate these symptoms. In this condition, the vagina will not have any signs of inflammation, like redness.

4. Atrophic Vaginitis: Light-Yellow, Watery, And Foul-Smelling 

Due to lower estrogen 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.

How To Treat Abnormal Vaginal Discharge

Consult your doctor or a TCM physician if you have any questions about your reproductive health.

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 anti-fungal creams inside the vagina or take anti-fungal medicines orally. For atrophic vaginitis, topical vaginal estrogen 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 Treatments For Abnormal Discharge

The TCM approach for vaginitis emphasizes 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.

Diet And Supplement Recommendations

Some women have normal-colored discharge, but it may be excessive or little. Others have no discharge at all. For women 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.”

According to TCM, dryness at the vagina area could indicate an absence of vaginal discharge, which is caused by a deficiency in the liver and kidney. Physician Ho stated that fruits and berries beverages 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.

Hygiene Tips

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 a strong 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-colored 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.”

If you are pregnant, be sure to check out our article on pregnancy discharge!

References

  1. Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine. 2019. Vaginal discharge. 
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. Vaginal Candidiasis
  3. Family Doctor. 2021. Vaginal Discharge.

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