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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

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.

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
  • birth control pill use
  • pregnancy
  • 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.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


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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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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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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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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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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Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the reproductive organs in women caused by bacteria. It's marked by pain in the abdomen, especially during urination or sex.

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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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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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Bleeding or spotting, increased need to urinate, tender breasts, fatigue, nausea, and missed period are signs of pregnancy.

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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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Papillomavirus Infections

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that is passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. Some strains of the virus are harmless. Others can cause serious health problems.

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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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Cervical Cancer Overview and History

Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death among American women. When the Pap smear became widely available, doctors could precancerous changes.

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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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Cervical Dysplasia

Cervical dysplasia is a condition in which healthy cells on the cervix undergo some abnormal changes. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that leads into the vagina. It is the cervix that dilates durin...

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Gestational Diabetes

During pregnancy, some women develop high levels of blood sugar, a condition known as gestational diabetes, around the 24th week of pregnancy. In most cases, the condition develops in women who never had diabetes.

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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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Endometrial Cancer (Cancer of the Uterine Endometrium)

Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the inner lining of the uterus. You are at greater risk if you are 60-70 years old and have used hormone replacement therapy that contains estrogen.

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Reactive Arthritis (Reiter's Syndrome)

Reiter's syndrome produces inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints due to infection elsewhere in the body. Symptoms include mouth ulcers, painful urination, and urethral discharge.

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Actinomycosis is a long-term infection that causes abscesses to form in the soft tissues of the body. Lumps in the neck or face can be a sign of actinomycosis.

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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.