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There are 19 possible causes of vaginal discharge

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Abnormal Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal discharge is most often a normal and regular occurrence. There are, however, types of discharge that can indicate an infection. Abnormal discharge may be yellow or green in color, chunky in consistency, and have a foul odor. Most abnormal discharges are caused by a yeast or bacterial infection. If you notice any discharge that looks unusual or that 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 are normal, while others may indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment.

White

Some 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, it is not normal and needs treatment. This type of discharge may be a sign of a yeast 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 ovulating. This is a normal type of discharge.

Brown or Bloody

Brown or bloody discharge is usually normal, especially when it occurs during 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 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.

In rare cases, brown or bloody discharge could be a sign of advanced cervical cancer. This is why it is 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 is 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 is your body’s way of cleaning and protecting the vagina. Furthermore, it is 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

Bacterial vaginosis is a bacterial infection and is quite common. This infection causes increased vaginal discharge that has a strong, foul (“fishy”) odor, although in some cases it produces no symptoms. Women who receive oral sex or have multiple sexual partners have an increased risk of acquiring this infection (University of Illinois).

Trichomoniasis

This is another type of infection, but it is caused by a protozoan. The infection is usually spread by sexual contact, but 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 individuals do not experience any symptoms.

Yeast Infection

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:

  • stress
  • diabetes
  • oral contraceptive use
  • pregnancy
  • antibiotics

Gonorrhea and Chlamydia

These two sexually transmitted infections can produce an abnormal discharge, which is often yellow or cloudy.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

This type of infection is often caused 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 HPV infection, which is caused 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 (CDC).

When to Seek Medical Help

If an unusual discharge is accompanied by 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. You will also be asked 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 cannot diagnose the problem immediately, you may need to have some tests run. 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. Do not use douches, as these 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.

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Possible Causes - Listed in order from the most common to the least.

1

Vaginal Yeast Infection

A vaginal yeast infection is a common female condition caused by the fungus candida. Symptoms include intense itching, swelling, and irritation.

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2

Vulvovaginitis

Volvovaginitis is a common infection of the vulva and vagina. Symptoms may include itching, discomfort while urinating, or increased vaginal dischrge.

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3

Postmenopausal Atrophic Vaginitis

Postmenopausal atrophic vaginitis normally occurs after menopause. The condition can lead to increased vaginal infections and may make sexual intercourse painful.

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4

Trichomonas Infection

Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. Symptoms include itching or burning in the penis or vagina, and discharge.

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5

Urethritis

Urethritis is an infection of the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder and semen out of the body. Symptoms include burning while urinating, abdominal pain, and discharge.

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6

Chlamydia Infection

Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease that should be treated quickly in order to avoid complications. It is caused by bacteria that are usually spread through sexual contact. People with chlamydia often don't hav...

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7

Gonorrhea

Gonnorhea is a sexually transmitted disease that affects warm, moist areas of the body. Early symptoms include pain when urinating and discharge.

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8

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the reproductive organs in women caused by bacteria. It

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9

Papillomavirus Infections

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by human papillomavirus.

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10

Inflammation of the Cervix (Cervicitis)

Cervicitis is a common condition that will affect more than half of all women in their adult lives. Normally caused by an infection, symptoms include vaginal bleeding and pain.

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11

Anxiety

What is anxiety? Anxiety often manifests itself as an apprehension about daily life. Learn the basics with this overview of the types of anxiety disorders.

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12

Endometrial Cancer (Cancer of the Uterine Endometrium)

Cancer of the uterine endometrium, also known as endometrial cancer, is a type of cancer that starts in the inner lining of your uterus. This lining is called the endometrium. According to the National Cancer Institute...

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13

Cervical Cancer Overview and History

To understand cervical cancer, it helps to be familiar with the anatomy of the cervix and surrounding areas. The uterine cervix is the neck of the uterus, or womb.

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14

Gestational Diabetes

During pregnancy, some women develop high levels of blood sugar, a condition known as gestational diabetes, or gestational diabetes mellitus. GDM typically occurs around your 24th week of pregnancy. According to th...

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15

Pregnancy

Pregnancy occurs when a sperm fertilizes an egg after it is released from the ovary. An egg enters one of the fallopian tubes where it may be fertilized. The egg then enters the uterus where implantation occurs...

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16

Ectopic Pregnancy

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Ectopic pregnancies occur when a fertilized egg fails to attach to the uterus. In most ectopic pregnancies, the egg will attach to the fallopian tubes. Less common, it may also attach to the abdominal cavity or cervix...

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17

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This STD causes herpes sores, which are painful blisters (fluid-filled bumps) that can break open and ooze fluid. According to the Centers for Disease Contro...

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18

Neutropenia

Neutropenia is an abnormally low level of neutrophils in the blood. Neutrophils are white blood cells produced in bone marrow and make up about 60% of blood.

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19

Reactive Arthritis (Reiter's Syndrome)

Reiter's syndrome, also known as reactive arthritis or post-infectious arthritis, produces inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints due to infection elsewhere in the body. Other parts of the body may also b...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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