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Everything you wanted to know about vaginal discharges

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Kayla, 15, presents to urgent care one afternoon accompanied by her aunty, June. Kayla tells you she has come to see you because she has a heavy discharge. She’s anxious and worried because she’s recently split with her boyfriend, Brendan. She found out he had cheated on her, and she was terrified she might have an STI.

She’s come to the Urgent Treatment Centre as she was scared to go to the GP as her stepmother works in reception there, and she didn’t want her dad to find out she’d been to the doctor.

Vaginal discharge is a common presentation to primary care and to GU clinics. Frustratingly, it is frequently a taboo subject and the range of normal physiological secretions is rarely discussed openly. This means teenagers (and their parents) are often unaware of what is normal versus what might be pathological. As a clinician, it is all too easy to assume that all discharge is thrush (it’s not) or to feel anxious about taking swabs or discussing sexual histories to make an assessment of the likely causes.

What to ask

  • Is this discharge new or different to usual for this person?
  • When did it start?
  • What colour is the discharge?
  • Is there blood or just discharge?
  • Is the discharge smelly?
  • Is there any pain associated with the discharge?
  • Is it itchy?
  • Is there any associated dyspareunia?
  • Are they/could they be pregnant?
  • How many sexual partners have they had in the last three months?
  • What do they think might be the problem?
  • Have they tried any treatment – home remedies or over-the-counter?
  • Have they had any gynaecological procedures recently?
    (Discharge after a termination of pregnancy (TOP), miscarriage, delivery or cryotherapy treatment for a cervical ectropion will need managing differently)

Kayla tells you the discharge started five days ago. It is watery and “smells bad, like fish”. There’s no bleeding and minimal pain, though she feels a bit sore generally in the vulval area. She says she hasn’t had sex for three weeks and had her period on time two weeks ago.

When she found out Brendan was cheating on her, she started adding Dettol to her bathwater as she’d heard this could reduce infections. She has not had any irregular bleeding. She and Brendan had been together for five months. She had one sexual partner before him. She almost always used condoms when having sex with Brendan.

There are many differential diagnoses for vaginal discharge, especially in someone who is or has been sexually active. Having a sense of the probability of each of the causes, based largely on history, can really help to identify the causes.

Should we swab everyone presenting with a discharge?

The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) suggest that routinely doing swabs, especially high vaginal swabs in all patients with a PV discharge, risks over-investigation and is unlikely to result in better treatment outcomes if patients are presenting with uncomplicated symptoms of thrush or BV. 

When consulting with teenagers, it is worth remembering the high prevalence of chlamydia (symptomatically or asymptomatically) in this age group. NICE CKS (Clinical Knowledge Summaries) recommend a swab for chlamydia annually in all sexually active women under 25 and a swab with every change of partner.  It seems logical, therefore, to offer a NAAT (Nucleic Acid Amplification Test – basically the swab for chlamydia) to every sexually active teenager presenting with vaginal discharge.

It is possible to give a NAAT swab to the patient to do a self-taken lower vaginal swab. These have good enough pick-up rates to be an alternative to formal examination and triple swabs if there is a good reason that a speculum and swabs are not going to be an option. It is optimal to offer screening for HIV and Hepatitis B as well, though in practice in an A&E/UTC setting, this is unlikely to be practical.

You examine Kayla using a small speculum and note a thin watery discharge adherent to the vaginal walls.  You take triple swabs and explain the results will be sent to her GP in the next 3-4 days. She and her aunty say they would be OK with ringing the surgery to get the results after you explain the duty of confidentiality held by all NHS staff and that her stepmother should not have any access to her medical records. 

You opt to treat Kayla for Bacterial Vaginosis with oral metronidazole, and she reassures you that she never drinks alcohol when you discuss the disulfiram reaction side effect profile.

You explain that scented bath products often cause changes to the vaginal pH, and you discourage her from using these on her genital area and suggest she does not add Dettol to the bathwater in future.  

You reassure her that BV is not an STI, supply her with condoms and encourage her to consider regular STI screening. You also give her a leaflet discussing contraceptive options for ongoing, more reliable contraception.

It is helpful to have to hand details of your local Contraception and Sexual Health (CASH)/GUM service, especially if they have an app or web-based service for young people.  It is usually possible for young people in the UK to access free condoms via such a service. It is also always worth using any interaction with a teenager, which includes a sexual health component, as an opportunity for health promotion, including STI detection and avoidance and contraception.

References

BASHH National guideline for Management of Vulvovaginal Candidiasis (2019), Bacterial Vaginosis (2012), Chlamydia Trachomatis (2015)

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/914184/STI_NCSP_report_2019.pdf

https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/chlamydia-uncomplicated-genital/background-information/risk-factors/

https://www.oxfordshireccg.nhs.uk/professional-resources/documents/clinical-guidelines/gynaecology/investigation-and-management-of-vaginal-discharge-in-adult-women-2016.pdf

https://www.rcgp.org.uk/clinical-and-research/clinical-resources/~/media/Files/CIRC/RCGP-Sexually-Transmitted-Infections-in-Primary-Care-2013.ashx

Author

  • Dr Tara George. MBChB (Hons) Sheffield 2002, FRCGP, DCH, DRCOG, DFSRH, PGCertMedEd Salaried GP and GP Trainer, Wingerworth Surgery, Wingerworth, Derbyshire. GP Training Programme Director, Chesterfield and the Derbyshire Dales GP Speciality Training Programme. Out of Hours GP and supervisor, Derbyshire Health United. Early Years Tutor, Phase 1, Sheffield University Medical School. Mentor, GP-s peer mentoring service and Derbyshire GPTF new to practice scheme. External Advisor RCGP. Host Bedside Reading podcast. Pronouns: she/her When she's not doing doctory things Tara loves to bake, to read novels, run and take out some of that pent up angst in Rockbox classes.

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