Increased or abnormal grey vaginal discharge can indicate certain changes in your body chemistry or the presence of disease.
Grey-colored discharge is not typical of normal vaginal discharge, and usually suggests an infection such as bacterial vaginosis, or other issues.
In this article, I’ll discuss some of the causes for grey discharge and what they mean.
I’ll also go over what normal vaginal discharge should look like, provide a color guide for a quick reference to what discharge means, and when you should contact a doctor.
Grey Discharge Causes
The most common cause of grey vaginal discharge is bacterial vaginosis.
Bacterial vaginosis is the umbrella term for an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina.
Bacterial imbalances can be caused by a variety of factors.
Bacterial vaginosis is typically treated easily with medication.
Bacterial vaginosis can often be caused by too much of the bacteria called Gardnerella vaginalis.
Bacterial vaginosis infections associated with G. vaginalis are characterized by vaginal discharge that’s thin and grey, with a pH level over 4.5.
The specific cause of bacterial vaginosis isn’t known, but there are known risk factors, including but not limited to:
- Having a new sexual partner
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Using douching products
- Cigarette smoking
- Having an intrauterine device (IUD)
- Not using condoms
Although bacterial vaginosis often results from unprotected sex, it does not fall under the category of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) because it is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria, not the transmission of bacteria or viruses from a partner.
In rare cases, it can be found in patients who have never had intercourse.
If you have bacterial vaginosis and you have a partner with a penis, your partner does not need to be treated.
However, if you have a partner with a vagina, your partner might also have bacterial vaginosis and may also need to be treated.
The best practices to prevent bacterial vaginosis and general vaginal irritation include:
- Washing your genital area with just water, not soap
- Avoiding hygiene sprays, douching, and genital fragrances or powders
- Wearing cotton underwear instead of synthetic fibers
- Using condoms to avoid infections and STIs
Bacterial vaginosis symptoms
The first symptom most people report is a foul odor coming from their vagina that gets stronger after intercourse.
Other common symptoms include:
- Grey or white discharge
- Foamy or watery discharge
- Pain or burning sensations during urination
- Itching and irritation around the genitals
Symptoms may resemble those of a yeast infection.
Occasionally, the patient has no symptoms of bacterial vaginosis at all when it is diagnosed.
To diagnose bacterial vaginitis, your doctor may:
- Ask you about your sexual history
- Ask you about your medical history
- Do a pelvic exam
- Look at vaginal discharge
- Examine discharge under a microscope (known as a wet mount)
Bacterial vaginosis treatments
Bacterial vaginosis can only be treated with prescription medication.
You cannot cure or heal it with over-the-counter medications.
They both can be taken as an oral pill, or as a cream or gel suppository which is inserted into the vagina with an applicator tool.
Medications used to treat bacterial vaginosis are generally considered safe to use for pregnant women, but if you are pregnant, speak with your doctor first.
If you are not treated, having bacterial vaginosis increases your risk for other STIs, such as HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
It’s also associated with preterm delivery in pregnancies, and higher rates of miscarriage when a diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis occurs in the first trimester.
A study found that vaginal infections such as bacterial vaginosis were more common during pregnancy, suggesting that vaginal bacterial screening as part of maternity care may aid in reducing the above consequences of vaginal infections.
Other Causes of Grey Discharge
While the most common issue is bacterial vaginosis, other infections and diseases can also cause grey discharge.
Trichomoniasis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are three STIs that can cause abnormal discharge as a symptom.
Trichomoniasis is a common STI in people ages 18-35.
Left long term without treatment, trichomoniasis can cause tissue damage in the cervix. Symptoms include:
- Itching around the thighs, vagina and genital areas
- Yellow-green or frothy vaginal discharge
- Discomfort or pain during intercourse
- Strong vaginal odor.
Both people with penises and people with vaginas can get trichomoniasis.
It’s treated using antibiotics such as metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).
Chlamydia is an STI that is highly prevalent in sexually active people ages 24 and under.
It’s typically asymptomatic, meaning most people don’t realize they have it.
Symptoms, when present, include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Burning sensations during urination
- Rectal pain
Both people with penises and people with vaginas can get chlamydia in unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse.
Children can be infected by chlamydia through vaginal birth if the mother is not treated.
Treatment options include azithromycin (which is safe during pregnancy) and doxycycline.
It’s also commonly asymptomatic, meaning people who have it do not show symptoms.
Annual screening is recommended for those who are sexually active and 25 or younger to prevent complications from lack of treatment.
Symptoms of gonorrhea include:
- Abnormal or increased vaginal discharge
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods
- Painful or burning sensations during urination
- Painful bowel movements
Both people with penises and people with vaginas can get gonorrhea.
It can usually be treated with antibiotics, though some strains are becoming drug-resistant.
Potential treatments include a single dose of ceftriaxone, or in the case of an allergy or other barrier, cefixime or gentamicin and azithromycin.
Other potential causes
Grey discharge is sometimes a symptom of vaginal cancer, which sometimes includes other changes in bathroom habits or pelvic or vaginal pain, especially when urinating or during sex.
If you have persistent grey vaginal discharge after treatment and have tested negative for the STIs listed above, see your doctor for further evaluation right away.
What Does Normal Discharge Look Like?
Discharge looks different depending on which stage of the menstrual cycle the person is in.
Most commonly, the discharge will be somewhere between clear to white or pale yellow in color, and can be either thin and slippery, or slightly sticky.
Knowing what your discharge looks like each week can help you identify abnormal discharge.
During your period, you may see less discharge or discharge that is colored anywhere from pink to brown from new or dried blood from your uterus, cervix and vagina.
After your period, you may see less or no discharge, or it might be cloudy or sticky.
Immediately before and during ovulation, discharge is typically thicker and feels stretchy or slippery.
In the days leading up to menstruation some people report reduced discharge.
Discharge Color Guide
The color of vaginal discharge can be a quick reference to see what’s going on in your vaginal health or menstrual cycle.
Here’s what each of the colors can be a sign of:
- Healthy discharge
- Sexual stimulation
- Sexually transmitted infection
- Cervical bleeding
- Irritation or bleeding from IUD
- Sexually transmitted infection
- Spotting, old blood
- Endometrial or cervical cancer
- Sexually transmitted infection
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Other infections
When to See a Medical Provider
If you are experiencing grey vaginal discharge, contact your physician.
Any other sudden changes or abnormalities in your vaginal discharge should be brought to the attention of your doctor.
They will discuss the issue with you and may do some tests to determine a diagnosis.
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