Vaginal discharge - What is normal and when should I be concerned?

Most girls and women have vaginal discharge - it is usually secreted from the reproductive organs to keep the vagina moist and clean. The amount and appearance of discharge depends on the hormone levels, which are affected by a variety of causes, such as the time of the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, birth control pills, sexual arousal.

When is vaginal discharge abnormal?

Vaginal discharge can be considered abnormal when there are changes in the consistency, amount, appearance, and odour, and are sometimes associated with symptoms such as itch, pelvic pain, urinary changes, systemic symptoms (such as fever, chills and rigours), vaginal bleeding.

You should see a doctor if you experience any of the above symptoms.

Abnormal discharge can occur at any age. For girls aged 2-6 years old, the most common cause is due to poor hygiene, foreign objects (often toilet paper or toys), reactions to soaps or even gastrointestinal infections. For women before menopause, the most common cause of abnormal vaginal discharge is infections. We will discuss this in further detail in the next few sections.

What is the cause of my discharge and how do I treat it?

The appearance of the discharge may point to a certain infection. The treatment will vary according to the cause. The following table lists some of the most common infections that might cause abnormal discharge.

Other non-infectious causes include skin disorders, trauma, foreign objects such as tampons, and cancers.

Can you prevent vaginal discharge?

It is impossible to prevent normal vaginal discharge. However, for abnormal vaginal discharges, you should take note of the risk factors in the table above. Most of the abnormal vaginal discharges are associated with sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), so the best prevention method is to use condoms during sexual intercourse and be screened regularly for STDs.

You should also try to avoid douching (washing the inside of your vagina with soaps) or using perfumed cleansing soaps. Instead, you should wash your genital area (not the inside) with unscented soaps and change your underwear on a daily basis. Wearing loosely-fitted cotton underwear is also recommended.

This article written in collaboration with Women Unbounded

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