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What Causes Vaginal Discharge?

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Oct 09, 2018
Last Modified Date: Oct 09, 2018
Published Date: Mar 23, 2018

Vaginal discharge is fluid that is expelled from the opening of the vagina. Some discharge from the vagina is normal, as fluid produced by glands within the vagina and cervix works to flush out bacteria, dead cells and other debris to help keep the vagina clean and healthy. However, certain changes in vaginal discharge can be a sign of trouble, indicating various types of infections, health conditions or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), for example. Here we'll investigate the details of vaginal discharge - what is normal and what isn't - and the potential causes of abnormal or excessive discharge.

About Normal Vaginal Discharge

Normal vaginal discharge typically ranges from thin and clear to thicker and milky white in color. It generally changes in color and consistency within that range throughout the menstrual cycle. The amount of discharge normally present varies from one woman to another, and most women see an increase in discharge during ovulation, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Normal vaginal discharge should not have an unpleasant odor, and most women should see consistent patterns of changes in the look, smell and amount of discharge each month as they move through the menstrual cycle.

About Abnormal Vaginal Discharge

Abnormal vaginal discharge means discharge that is unusual for you - thicker, thinner, different in color, amount or smell than you are used to seeing. Changes that may warrant concern include discharge that is yellow, green or brown in color, discharge that has a lumpy consistency, or any discharge that has an unusual or foul odor. Any such changes, especially if they are accompanied by other symptoms - vaginal itching or burning, for instance, or abdominal pain - can indicate infection or other health issues.

What Can Cause Abnormal Discharge?

Abnormal vaginal discharge is caused by changes in the balance of normal bacteria in the vaginal canal, which in turn, causes changes in the amount, color, odor and/or texture of vaginal fluids. There are a variety of conditions, infections and other issues that can upset that natural balance, including:

  • Certain medications - Medications that can contribute to changes in vaginal discharge include birth control pills, antibiotic and steroids.
  • Hormonal changes, such as pregnancy or menopause - Changes in hormonal balance, such as those that come with pregnancy or the onset of menopause, can affect the amount and consistency of discharge.
  • Vaginitis - This condition is simple irritation in or around the vagina and can change the amount and appearance of discharge.
  • Bacterial Vaginosis - A very common bacterial infection, this condition can cause an increase in vaginal discharge and often presents with discharge that is white, gray or yellow and carries a strong fishy or foul odor.
  • Trichomoniasis - This infection is caused by a parasite, called a protozoan, is usually transmitted via sexual contact. Women who have contracted this infection may see an increased amount of vaginal discharge, which may be yellow or green in color and have a foul odor. Often, these changes are accompanied by pain, inflammation and itching in and around the vaginal area.
  • Yeast Infection - This is a fungal infection, which occurs when yeast, naturally present in small amounts in the vagina, grows out of control, disturbing the bacterial balance. This typically causes a white, clumpy type of discharge that resembles cottage cheese, along well as vaginal itching and burning.
  • Gonorrhea - A sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that can cause an increase in discharge from the vagina, which may be green, yellow, cloudy or tinged with blood.
  • Chlamydia - Another sexually transmitted bacterial infection, chlamydia can lead to changes in vaginal discharge, like those seen with gonorrhea; green, yellow, cloudy or bloody discharge.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Cervical Cancer - HPV is a virus that is transmitted through sexual contact and can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Cancer of the cervix can cause symptoms that include blood-tinged, brown or watery discharge from the vagina, often with a foul or unusual odor.
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) - An infection that develops in a woman's reproductive organs, PID can be the result of another untreated infection or STD that has spread through the reproductive system, and often causes heavy, foul-smelling vaginal discharge.

What to Do If You Notice Changes

If you have noticed changes in your normal pattern of vaginal discharge, getting checked out by your gynecologist is wise. This is especially true if those changes persist throughout your menstrual cycle, include discharge that is frothy or lumpy, and/or come along with symptoms like fever, flu-like symptoms, pain, burning or itching, rash, redness, swelling or sores in the vaginal area, or an unusual odor, particularly if it is fishy or foul. Getting tested for common STDs is also a very good idea, and will probably be suggested by your doctor, since many can cause these types of abnormal discharge and other symptoms.

However, it is important to note that if you suspect you may have been exposed to an STD, you should not wait to see abnormal vaginal discharge or other symptoms before getting tested. Women often carry these infections with no symptoms at all, and left untreated, they can cause PID and other serious complications. For that reason, it is recommended that women who are sexually active be tested regularly, whether they experience any symptoms, to ensure that STDs are caught and treated early. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine screening for common STDs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, for most women once a year, especially in women under age 25. All pregnant women should be screened as well, to ensure against the harm that untreated STDs can cause in mother and child. The agency also suggests that all adults are tested for HIV at least once before age 64.

Most infections and health issues that can cause abnormal vaginal discharge can be easily treated with medications. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, such as bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and PID, among others. Antifungal medications can clear up yeast infections, and there are medications that can eliminate infections caused by parasites, like trichomoniasis.