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Discharging matters

Let’s talk about vaginal discharge.

As icky as it may seem, vaginal discharge is part of everyday life for a woman. A young girl will start producing vaginal discharge during puberty, about a year before she has her first period, and she will continue to produce it until she reaches menopause.

Vaginal discharge is a fluid secreted by the glands in the vagina and cervix to keep the vagina clean, lubricated and healthy. A small amount of discharge is produced every day, and as it flows out, it takes with it the old cells that line the vagina. Some days you will get a little more discharge, some days less. This is normal, as the amount of mucous produced by the glands depends on the amount of oestrogen circulating in your body and therefore varies throughout your menstrual cycle.

What’s normal?

Normal discharge usually does not have any odour. Therefore, women who have foul- smelling discharge should suspect something. It also appears clear, or milky when it dries on clothing. You may notice it as white spots or thin, stringy-looking discharge on your underwear.Your vagina will produce normal discharge if it is in a healthy condition – that is, if the pH of the vagina is maintained in its natural acidic balance.

The acidic pH of your vagina is produced by good bacteria that acts to prevent infections. However, the natural balance of your vagina can be disrupted by anything that interferes with its’ normal environment. There are a few conditions that can cause changes in the appearance or consistency of your vaginal discharge:

  • Your menstrual cycle
  • Emotional stress
  • Pregnancy
  • Any prescribed or over-the-counter medications that contain hormones, such as oral contraceptives
  • Sexual excitement
  • Breastfeeding
  • Ovulation
  • Your diet

This list is just to make you aware that, sometimes, changes in your discharge are normal.

When vaginal discharge is abnormal

Beware, when your vaginal discharge has a foul odour or an abnormal colour such as grey, green, or yellow!  Something may also be wrong if your vaginal discharge suddenly significantly increases or decreases in amount. If your discharge appears abnormal and you also have the following symptoms, you should see your doctor immediately:

  • If you feel weak, fatigued, or especially sick
  • If you have a yellow or green vaginal discharge and a fever
  • If you experience either mild or severe abdominal pain for more than two hours
  • If you experience itching or irritation around your vagina
  • If you experience discomfort or a burning sensation during urination or sex
  • If you have a rash, sores or blisters in your vaginal area

These abnormal changes to your vaginal discharge could be caused by vaginal infections. Infections can occur when the natural pH balance of your vagina is disrupted. This can be caused by things like vaginal douches, feminine hygiene products (like feminine sprays), perfumed or deodorant soaps, antibiotics, diabetes or microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, viruses and parasites. The most common types of vaginal infections are candida or “yeast” vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, chlamydia vaginitis, viral vaginitis and non-infectious vaginitis. Some of these are sexually transmitted, and all can be effectively treated if you seek your doctor’s advice early.

Staying healthy down under

Here’s what you can do to reduce getting vaginal infections and abnormal discharge:

  • Wear cotton panties so that your vaginal area can stay ventilated and dry.
  • Do not use feminine hygiene products, perfumed or deodorant soaps, powders, lotions, and bubble baths, which can irritate the vaginal area.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing such as tight jeans, bathing suits, exercise wear, pantyhose, or slacks, for a prolonged period of time.
  • Do not use vaginal douches.
  • Do not use petroleum jelly or oils for vaginal lubrication, as they can encourage bacteria to grow.
  • Always wipe from front to back after urination or having a bowel movement. This prevents bacteria from spreading to the vagina.
  • If you are being treated for a vaginal infection, use all the medication as directed even if you have no more symptoms.
  • Don’t have sexual intercourse during treatment for a vaginal infection and until you have no more symptoms.
  • Do not scratch your vaginal area, as it will make the itching and inflammation worse!
  • Do not self-treat a vaginal infection, see your doctor for treatment.
  • If you have your period while you are using vaginal creams or suppositories, continue your regular medication schedule during your period and don’t use tampons – use pads instead.
  • Practise safe sex with the use of condoms.

At the same time, practise good basic hygiene overall, get plenty of sleep and eat a well- balanced diet. Go for regular gynaecological check-ups, including a Pap smear, at least every two years. All these are not only good for your vaginal health, but also for the rest of your body and your mind. Lastly, even if you do not feel comfortable talking about vaginal discharge with anyone, at least be aware of what’s normal and what’s not.  Remember, odour should not be masked, but investigated.

The Star Newspaper, Sunday June 10, 2007


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