What to do about vaginal discharge…

posted by: Jonathan Shaw

Our most common symptom in the clinic is vaginal discharge. We give our tips below on how to think about discharge, and when to seek help.

Is it normal to have vaginal discharge?

Yes. All women have a level of vaginal discharge at all times. This is influenced by things such as your period cycle, contraception, and the amount of sex you’re having. Discharge can also be caused by some STIs, but more commonly by infections which aren’t sexually transmitted.

So how do I know if there is something wrong?

A key sign for us which we ask all women about is whether you have noticed an obvious change in your natural discharge. This change can be that there is more of it, or that it has a different smell or appearance. The discharge may also start to irritate your skin or have some blood in it. These changes in discharge can be a sign that you need help.

Do I have to come in to clinic for that help?

Not always. If your discharge is thick, white and causing itch or irritation this is most often due to thrush. Thrush is not a sexually transmitted infection and can be treated by simple over the counter treatments at a local pharmacy. Especially if you have had thrush before, and know the symptoms you get with it, there is no harm in trying a product like Canesten Duo from a local shop.

How about smelly discharge…. can I get treatment for that from a pharmacy?

An obvious smell to a discharge is commonly seen with bacterial vaginosis (BV). This is also not a sexually transmitted infection, but does need effective antibiotics to treat it which have to be prescribed by a doctor or nurse. There are a number of BV therapies available on pharmacy shelves but there is no evidence that these treatments are able to treat BV. A smelly discharge should always be reviewed by one of our clinics or your GP if it lasts longer than a few days, and especially if it starts to irritate your skin.

But shouldn’t I be getting tests for other causes of discharge?

Most likely yes, and we would always support you to access that. Especially if you have recently had a new partner, or have had sex with someone with symptoms or an STI, you should look to get tested. However if you don’t feel you are at risk of an STI, and your symptom is simply itchy discharge you can feel safe in trying thrush treatment. If it doesn’t work of course please come to see us in clinic.

So there are options out there for me to choose from?

Yes. We are aware it is getting harder to see us at some of our clinics with busy sit and wait services and longer waiting times for appointments. At Devon Sexual Health we are always looking to give confidence to people to manage their own sexual health. This can be via our services but also by a local pharmacy or your GP. Please use our triage system (“how can we help you?”) to find the right service for you.

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Accessing our service

In response to the emergence of COVID-19 we have implemented a telephone triage system for all of our clinics. Our central telephone number is 0300 303 3989.

We are currently experiencing high demand for our Sexual Health Services across Devon and Torbay with unprecedented demand in Exeter. Please note always review urgent cases the same day. If your need is urgent and you are struggling to reach us keep trying as our phone system will explain how to access same-day care with us.

We have updated information on the provision of routine contraception here.

Self-requested STI testing by post is available for those aged under 25- more info

We are now running an under 18’s sit and wait clinic at Exeter, Torquay, and Barnstaple for more information click here

If you are struggling to access sexual health services, alternatives may be available:

  • Emergency Contraception - from a local pharmacy - more info
  • Contraceptive pills and LARC procedures - obtained from your GP
  • HIV PEPSE - available via A+E departments - more info
  • Condoms by post (for gay and bisexual men only) - more info