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Vaginal Discharge - Causes, Types, Diagnosis and Treatment

What's Abnormal?

Vaginal discharge may not be a popular topic of conversation. But you might like to know that it actually serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.

Most of the time vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary from woman to woman, and the normal color can range from clear to a milky whitish, depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. You may also notice slight changes in the amount and odor of the discharge. For example, there will be more discharge if you are ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused. The smell may be different if you are pregnant or you haven’t been diligent about your personal hygiene.

None of those changes is cause for alarm. However, if the color, smell, or consistency seems significantly unusual, especially if there is itching or burning in the vagina, you could be noticing a sign of an infection or other condition.

What causes abnormal discharge?

Any change in the balance of normal bacteria in the vagina can affect the smell, color, or texture of the discharge. These are a few of the things that can upset that balance:
  • antibiotic or steroid use
  • bacterial vaginosis, which is a bacterial infection more common in pregnant women or women who have multiple sexual partners
  • birth control pills
  • cervical cancer
  • chlamydia or gonorrhea, which are sexually transmitted infections
  • diabetes
  • douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
  • pelvic infection after surgery
  • pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • trichomoniasis, which is a parasitic infection typically caused by having unprotected sex
  • vaginal atrophy, which is thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during menopause
  • vaginitis, which is irritation in or around the vagina
  • yeast infections
See the chart below to learn more about what a particular type of discharge might mean.

Types of Abnormal Discharge and Their Possible Causes

Type of Discharge

What It Might Mean

Other Symptoms

Bloody or brown
Irregular menstrual cycles, or less often, cervical or endometrial cancer
Abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain
Cloudy or yellow
Bleeding between periods, urinary incontinence
Frothy, yellow or greenish with a bad smell
Pain and itching while urinating
Shedding of the uterine lining after childbirth (lochia)

Thick, white, cheesy
Yeast infection
Swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse
White, gray, or yellow with fishy odor
Bacterial vaginosis
Itching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva

How does the doctor diagnose abnormal discharge?

The doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms. Questions the doctor may ask include:
  • When did the abnormal discharge begin?
  • What color is the discharge?
  • Is there any smell?
  • Do you have any itching, pain, or burning in or around the vagina?
  • Do you have more than one sexual partner?
  • Do you douche?

The doctor may take a sample of the discharge or do a Pap test to collect cells from your cervix for further examination.

How is abnormal discharge treated?

Call your doctor for an appointment if you notice any unusual discharge. How you are treated will depend on the condition that’s causing the problem. For example,yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal medications inserted into the vagina in cream or gel form. Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotic pills or creams. Trichomoniasis is usually treated with the drug metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).

Here are some tips for preventing vaginal infections that can lead to abnormal discharge:
Keep the vagina clean by washing regularly with a gentle soap and warm water.
Never use scented soaps or douche. Also avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into the vagina and causing an infection.
Wear 100% cotton underpants, and avoid overly tight clothing.

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