What causes vaginal discharge? 20 possible conditions
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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:
- oral contraceptive use
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).
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.
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.
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.
- Female health, vaginal discharge. (n.d.) Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Retrieved July 16, 2012, from http://www.pamf.org/teen/health/femalehealth/discharge.html
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) screening. (2012, March 22). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/Screening.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010, August 28). Vaginal discharge. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vaginal-discharge/MY00097
- Vorvick, L. J., & Storck, S. (2011, November 7). Vaginal discharge. National Library of Medicine – National Health Institutes. Retrieved July 16, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003158.htm
- Vaginal discharge. (n.d.). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McKinley Health Center. Retrieved July 16, 2012, 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.
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