Vaginal discharge occurs in most women at some time in life and is usually due to bacterial vaginosis or vaginal thrush or both.
There are lots of different causes but one of the most common causes is called bacterial vaginosis (BV), or Gardnerella. Vaginal discharge from this condition occurs in 10 to 30 percent of women. It is not serious and usually only requires treatment if symptoms are present. Those women who do seek treatment may notice a fishy or musty smell from the vagina that may get stronger after sexual intercourse. A few women may have soreness of the vulva (the skin at the opening of the vagina). There may also be a vaginal discharge that can vary from a little to a lot, and may be white but also thin, watery and frothy.
Bacterial vaginosis is not sexually transmissible and therefore your sexual partner needs no treatment, however it sometimes develops soon after intercourse with a new partner. The condition is not an infection but due to excessive presence of vaginal bacteria. Fungal infection (thrush), STIs (such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea), HPV (human papilloma virus) may occur simultaneously and make symptoms of bacterial vaginosis worse. The symptoms of BV are modified by intercourse trauma, cyclic hormonal changes, the Pill, antibiotics, tampons and douching.
An antibiotic known as metronidazole is often used to treat the infection, either as a single dose or for five days. A prescription from the doctor is necessary. Remember, if symptoms persist, it may be due to other causes and you should see your doctor for further tests.
Vaginal thrush or candidiasis is also very common and is caused by an overgrowth of yeast known as candida albicans. It may cause vaginal discomfort - itching or burning, a thick, white discharge with a "cottage cheese" appearance, redness or swelling of the vagina or vulva, and stinging and burning when passing urine. It is also not sexually transmissible. The overgrowth may be due to antibiotic use, the Pill, diabetes, pregnancy, general illness and immune disorders.
Treatment usually involves antifungal creams or pessaries that are placed in the vagina at night. These may be purchased without prescription from the pharmacy. To help prevent thrush, wipe from front to back after using the toilet (this will prevent the spread of candida from anus to vagina), use only mild soaps to wash the genital area, avoid using antiseptics, douches and perfumed sprays in the genital area, and avoid wearing tight pants and synthetic underwear.
If you have repeated thrush, you should see your doctor as bouts of suspected thrush may be a result of other underlying conditions and you may need further investigations and treatment.