What causes vaginal discharge? 20 possible conditions
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is most often a normal and regular occurrence. However, there are certain types of discharge that can indicate an infection. Abnormal discharge may be yellow or green, chunky in consistency, or have a foul odor. Abnormal discharge is usually caused by yeast or bacterial infection. If you notice any discharge that looks unusual or is foul smelling, you should see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Types of Vaginal Discharge
There are several different types of vaginal discharge. These types are categorized based on their color and consistency. Some types of discharge are normal, but others may indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment.
A bit of white discharge, especially at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle, is normal. However, if the discharge is accompanied by itching and has a thick, cottage cheese-like consistency or appearance, it’s not normal and needs treatment. This type of discharge may be a sign of a yeast (Candida) infection.
Clear and Watery
A clear and watery discharge is perfectly normal and can occur at any time of the month. It may be especially heavy after exercise.
Clear and Stretchy
When discharge is clear but stretchy and mucous-like, rather than watery, it indicates that you are likely ovulating. This is a normal type of discharge.
Brown or Bloody
Brown or bloody discharge is usually normal, especially when it occurs during or right after your menstrual cycle. A late discharge at the end of your period can look brown instead of red. You may also experience a small amount of bloody discharge in between periods, which is called spotting. If spotting occurs during the normal time of your period and you have recently had sex without protection, this could be a sign of pregnancy. Spotting during an early phase of pregnancy can be a sign of miscarriage, so it should be discussed with your OB-GYN.
In rare cases, brown or bloody discharge can be a sign of advanced cervical cancer. This is why it’s important to get a yearly pelvic exam and Pap smear, during which your gynecologist will check for cervical abnormalities.
Yellow or Green
A yellow or green discharge, especially when it’s thick, chunky, or accompanied by a bad smell, is not normal. This type of discharge may be a sign of the infection trichomoniasis, which is commonly spread through sexual intercourse.
Causes of Vaginal Discharge
Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function, and it’s your body’s way of cleaning and protecting the vagina. It’s normal for discharge to increase with exercise, sexual arousal, ovulation, birth control pill use, and emotional stress.
Abnormal vaginal discharge, however, is usually caused by an infection.
Bacterial vaginosis is a bacterial infection and is quite common. This infection causes increased vaginal discharge that has a strong, foul, and sometimes fishy odor, although it produces no symptoms in some cases. Women who receive oral sex or who have multiple sexual partners have an increased risk of acquiring this infection.
This is another type of infection, but a protozoan (a single-celled organism) causes it. The infection is usually spread by sexual contact, but it can also be contracted by sharing towels or bathing suits. This infection results in a yellow or green discharge that has a foul odor. Pain, inflammation, and itching are also common symptoms, although some people don’t experience any symptoms.
A yeast infection is a fungal infection that produces white, cottage cheese-like discharge in addition to burning and itching sensations. The presence of yeast in the vagina is normal, but its growth can multiply out of control in certain situations. The following may increase your likelihood of yeast infections:
- birth control pill use
- antibiotics (especially prolonged use over 10 days)
Gonorrhea and Chlamydia
These two sexually transmitted infections can produce an abnormal discharge, which is often yellow, greenish, or cloudy.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
This type of infection is often spread by sexual contact and occurs when bacteria spreads up the vagina and into other reproductive organs. It may produce a heavy, foul-smelling discharge.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Cervical Cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is spread by sexual contact, can lead to cervical cancer. While there may be no symptoms, this type of cancer can produce a bloody, brown, and/or watery discharge with a bad odor. Cervical cancer can easily be prevented or found with yearly Pap smears and HPV testing.
When to Seek Medical Help
If you have unusual discharge with other symptoms such as a fever, pain in the abdomen, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, or increased urination, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. If you have any concerns about the normality of a discharge, make an appointment to see your doctor.
What to Expect at a Doctor’s Appointment
When you see your doctor for abnormal vaginal discharge, you will get a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. Your doctor will also ask you several questions about your symptoms, your menstrual cycle, and your sexual activity. In many cases, an infection can be detected by the physical or pelvic exam.
If your doctor can’t diagnose the problem immediately, he or she may order some tests. Your doctor may want to take a scraping from your cervix to check for HPV or cervical cancer. Your discharge may also be examined under a microscope to pinpoint an infectious agent. Once your doctor can tell you the cause of the discharge, you will be given treatment options.
Home Care for Vaginal Discharge
To prevent infections, you should practice good hygiene and wear breathable cotton underwear. Don’t use douches because they can make discharge worse by removing useful bacteria. You should also practice safe sex and use protection to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
To decrease the likelihood of yeast infections when taking antibiotics, eat yogurt that contains live and active cultures. If you know you have a yeast infection, you can also treat it with an over-the-counter yeast infection cream or suppository.
- HPV cancer screening. (2015, January 22). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/Screening.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, March 22). Vaginal discharge. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825
- Vaginal discharge. (2013, October). Retrieved from http://www.pamf.org/teen/health/femalehealth/discharge.html
- Vaginal discharge. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/vaginal_discharge.html
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
Click to add a symptom to your list
- Top Symptoms