Vaginal Discharge and Odour (Smell)

Vaginal discharge is a normal occurrence, and is more likely to occur around the time of ovulation. The lining of the cervix and vagina produces a thin clear discharge that maintains the moisture within the vagina and flushes out the area. This discharge may become a bit thick, and slightly white, during the times of ovulation, when pregnant, breast feeding or during sexual intercourse. In all these circumstances, the vaginal discharge is considered as a normal physiological process. However, any significant change in the quantity, colour and odour of the discharge may be a cause for concern and you will need to consult with a gynaecologist for further investigation.

Causes of Vaginal Discharge and/or Odour

While a moderate vaginal discharge is normal, an excess of fluid should be carefully monitored. If the colour changes from a clear-whitish fluid to yellow, brown or tinged with streaks of blood, then medical attention is necessary. In most cases, there is no significant vaginal odour, other than regular body odour. However, if any offensive odour is emanating from the vaginal area, with or without discharge, it should be carefully investigated for possible medical causes.

Some of the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge and/or odour  may include :

  • Infection. This can range from a bacterial infection of the vagina (bacterial vaginosis), chlamydia, thrush or even sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) like gonorrhea and genital herpes. In cases of STD’s, there is usually signs visible on the skin but this may not always be the case. A vaginal infection must be taken seriously and treated immediately to prevent the infection from spreading to the cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. The colour of the discharge in an infection may differ but it is usually yellow to light brown (sometimes with streaks of blood) in the case of vaginosis and chlamydia. In thrush, the discharge is usually thicker and white, although it could also be thin and watery. Usually the discharge has a foul odour, often described as a “fishy smell”. In bacterial vaginosis, a foul smelling vaginal odour will be accompanied by pain, fever and there may be swelling of the vulva. Other infections do not usually produce such acute symptoms although a discharge is common among all.
  • Inflammation. Any inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis), whether due to hormonal factors, trauma, an infection or an allergic reaction will cause some discharge. It may be slight, nothing more than increased moisture or it can be profuse, dripping and soiling the underwear. The discharge may vary from the foul odour of an infection to a musty, damp odour associated with increased moisture.  Vaginitis must be monitored carefully, especially in children, as it may be a sign of sexual abuse. In cases of vaginal irritation, or an allergy, this can be caused by a number of factors, including irritation due to tampons, sexual contact, soaps and bathing water.
  • Personal hygiene. Poor hygiene will not often cause an increase in vaginal discharge but it can affect the odour. A combination of factors may contribute to a foul smelling vaginal odour and it is important to bathe regularly, change underwear, sanitary pads and tampons often, and treat any skin sores or fungal infections in the groin region. Pubic hair may contribute to a vaginal odour, especially if there is excessive perspiration, but good hygiene will limit the extent of any odour. In most cases, vaginal odour does not differ significantly from body odour.
  • Vaginal discharge with an odour may occur in cervical or vaginal cancer, although the latter is not a common condition. It is important to have a pap smear conducted on a regular basis and apart from routine testing, consult with a gynaecologist if there are any other signs or symptoms that may be a cause for concern.
  • Vaginal douching or “wash outs” are one of the main causes of vaginal infections, resulting in discharge with a foul odour. The practice of “washing out” the vagina is not advisable. The vagina maintains a balanced environment, which allows naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts to survive, but not thrive. If this delicate balance, specifically the pH (acidity-alkalinity)  and the natural moisture, is affected, these bacteria and yeasts can take advantage and multiply profusely. This bacterial or yeast overgrowth can easily be avoided without interfering with the internal environment of the vagina.