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What causes normal vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is normal for most women, sometimes every day and other times just under certain circumstances. Many women see increased discharge after exercise, when they use birth control pills, when they are sexually aroused, or when they are under stress.

Normal vaginal discharge consists of cells and fluid from the uterus and vagina. It keeps tissues in the vagina healthy and lubricated, protected from irritation and infections. The consistency and amount of vaginal discharge usually vary throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle.

What does normal vaginal discharge look like?

During most times of the month, vaginal discharge is clear or white and watery or slightly sticky. When a woman ovulates, the discharge may be thicker and more like mucous. These are all normal conditions. Many women also experience bloody-brown or brown vaginal discharge at the end of their periods or right after their menstrual cycle ends. This, too, is normal.

What does abnormal vaginal discharge look like?

Any time vaginal discharge looks or smells different than normal, or if it becomes heavier than usual for no apparent reason, it may indicate an infection or other problem. Sometimes pain, itching or inflammation accompanies a change in vaginal discharge characteristics. The discharge may become thick and white, chunky, yellow, green, or have a foul or fishy odor. Any of these symptoms signal a possible problem and should be assessed by your gynecologist.

Gynecologist Writing Woman Prescription for Vaginal Discharge Concern

What causes abnormal vaginal discharge?

Common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge can include any of the following:

  • Bacterial Vaginosis: This is a common infection which results in a foul, sometimes fishy-smelling, heavy vaginal discharge in many women. Other women have no symptoms at all. Women who engage in oral sex or who have multiple sex partners are at higher risk of getting this infection.
  • Trichomoniasis: A single-celled organism called a protozoan causes this infection, usually spread by sex. It can also spread through sharing bathing suits or towels in very rare circumstances. The infection produces a foul-smelling green or yellow vaginal discharge, along with itching and inflammation in the vaginal area and vulva along with pain.
  • Chlamydia, Gonorrhea or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): Sexually transmitted infections produce abnormal vaginal discharges that range from cloudy to yellow or green. They may also have other symptoms such as pain or inflammation, or a woman may experience no symptoms.   
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): Pelvic Inflammatory Disease often results when bacteria from other infections spread up from the vagina into other reproductive organs such as the uterus and fallopian tubes. A woman usually experiences pain low in her abdomen, along with a heavy vaginal discharge that has a foul smell.   
  • Yeast Infection: The vagina normally contains yeasts, which help maintain the bacterial balance in the body. When the yeast balance gets out of control, a vaginal yeast infection results. Symptoms include a heavy, white, cottage cheese-like vaginal discharge, itching and burning in the vaginal and vulvar region, and sometimes pain.   
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV)HPV spreads through sexual contact. Left untreated, it can lead to cervical cancer in women. Men can carry the HPV virus with and without symptoms, passing it to their partners. Women may have no symptoms, or they may have a watery vaginal discharge with a bad odor.  
  • Cervical Cancer: Very rarely, a blood-tinged or brownish vaginal discharge can indicate cervical cancer. When this discharge occurs at a time other than right at the end of a menstrual period, you should see your gynecologist right away for testing. Annual Pap smears and HPV testing can help prevent or detect cervical cancers.    
  • MenopauseMenopause, as well as perimenopause, may change the color, amount and texture of vaginal discharge.
  • Some hygiene practices, such as douching, using scented soaps or sprays.
  • A forgotten tampon inside the vagina. Change tampons at least every four hours.

Some of these issues are uncomfortable but relatively harmless. Others, such as STDs, can spread to reproductive organs or to sexual partners.

Women’s Underwear in Laundry Ready for Washing MachineAre there home treatments for abnormal vaginal discharge?

Prevent infections by limiting sexual partners, practicing safer sex with the use of condoms, and maintaining good hygiene routines. Wear breathable cotton underwear whenever possible. Do not use douches, as these remove healthy bacteria from the vagina and allow infections to flourish. You do not need to treat a normal vaginal discharge.

When taking antibiotics, eat yogurt with live and active cultures to decrease the likelihood of a yeast infection. Yeast infections are often effectively treated with over-the-counter creams or vaginal suppositories. Use condoms for at least a week after beginning treatment for a yeast infection, so you do not infect your partner or re-infect yourself. If the yeast infection symptoms do not go away after a week, contact your gynecologist.  

When should I see the doctor about abnormal vaginal discharge?

Anytime you have a concern about a change in your vaginal discharge, contact your gynecologist. If you experience yellow, green, thick, or cottage-cheese-like vaginal discharge, these are symptoms of a problem that warrants a doctor’s care. Vaginal discharges with strong odors, including foul smells or a fishy smell, also indicate likely infections that require a visit to the doctor.

If you have bleeding or spotting, pain in your lower abdomen, or pain during sexual intercourse, these symptoms should also be discussed with your gynecologist. Sometimes spotting is a sign you are pregnant. If you are already pregnant and in your first trimester of pregnancy, spotting may be a sign of a miscarriage. In this case, call your doctor immediately. If other symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, increased urination, or unexplained weight loss accompany changes in your vaginal discharge, see a doctor as soon as you can.

What are the treatments for unusual vaginal discharge?

Women can have more than one infection at the same time. They can get infections through unprotected sex with a partner who is unaware they have an infection, and they can spread an infection to a sexual partner through unprotected sex. If you are getting treatment for a vaginal infection, your sex partners also need to get treatment at the same time. You need to use a condom for all sexual activity while you are getting treatment, so you do not re-infect yourself or your partners.

Your doctor will do a pelvic exam, including testing your vaginal discharge, to determine the cause of your symptoms. The doctor may also ask questions about your symptoms, your sexual activity, and your menstrual cycles. If necessary, the doctor will send samples of your discharge to the lab for testing. The doctor may also do a Pap smear or other tests to check for HPV or cervical cancer if they have reason to be concerned about those issues.

Once the doctor knows the cause of the problem, they can work with you to determine a course of treatment. It may be as simple as antibiotics or a yeast infection treatment. If the problem is an STD, the doctor will want to treat your sexual problems, too. You need to finish all your medicine, even if you feel better. If the problem is due to menopause, the doctor may treat you with a vaginal cream containing estrogen.

Anytime you have questions about your vaginal health, contact your doctor at Kansas City ObGyn. We will schedule an appointment and answer your questions, treating any problems you may be experiencing.