By Dr Kizito Lubano
Vaginal discharge may not be a popular topic of conversation. However, it serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary from one woman to another. The normal colour ranges from clear to milky whitish, depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. You may also notice slight changes in the amount and odour of the discharge. For example, there discharge will increase during ovulation, breastfeeding or when sexually aroused.
The smell may also be different if you are pregnant or haven’t been diligent about your personal hygiene. None of these changes should cause alarm. However, if the colour, smell or consistency seems significantly unusual, especially if there is an itching or burning in the vagina, it is a sign of an infection or other condition.
Any change in the balance of normal bacteria in the vagina can affect the smell, colour or texture of the discharge.
Some of the things that can upset this balance include antibiotic or steroid use, bacterial vaginosis (common in pregnant women or women who have multiple sexual partners), birth control pills, cervical cancer, chlamydia or gonorrhea, which are sexually transmitted infections.
Others include diabetes, douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath, pelvic infection after surgery, pelvic inflammatory disease trichomoniasis — a parasitic infection typically caused by having unprotected sex, vaginal atrophy which is thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during menopause and vaginitis, an irritation in or around the vagina yeast infections.
Types of abnormal discharge and their possible causes
• Bloody or brown: Irregular menstrual cycles or although less often, cervical or endometrial cancer.
• Cloudy or yellow: Gonorrhea.
• Frothy, yellow or greenish with a foul smell: Trichomoniasis, which is symptomised by pink shedding of the uterine lining after childbirth
• Thick, white, cheesy: Yeast infection
• White, gray, or yellow with fishy odour: Bacterial vaginosis
The doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms.
A sample of the discharge or do a pap test to collect cells from your cervix for further examination.
How you are treated will depend on the condition that’s causing the problem. For example, yeast infections are usually treated with anti-fungal medications inserted into the vagina in cream or gel form. Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotic pills or creams. Trichomoniasis is usually treated with the drug metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).
Keep the vagina clean by washing regularly with a gentle soap and warm water.
Never use scented soaps or douche. Also avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into the vagina and causing an infection.
Wear 100 per cent cotton underpants. Don’t wear overly tight clothing.