What is vaginal discharge?
It is common to have vaginal discharge—fluid that comes from the vagina. Vaginal discharge is an important way the vagina keeps itself healthy. It carries old cells and other debris out of the vagina. Normal vaginal discharge fluid is typically clear or whitish and does not have much of an odor. Normal discharge can be thin, thick, watery, sticky or elastic. It tends to change depending on the phase of your menstrual cycle.
Changes in the color, odor, or texture of the discharge may indicate that an infection is present. Infections often cause other symptoms, such as itching, burning, discomfort or spotting (bleeding).
Sexually transmitted infections are common abnormal vaginal discharge causes. This includes trichomoniasis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections also produce a vaginal discharge. Other causes include foreign objects in the vagina, such as an old tampon, abnormal bleeding, irregular menstrual bleeding, and cervical or vaginal cancer.
The treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge depends on the cause. Trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and bacterial vaginosis are all treatable with antibiotics. Antifungal medications can cure yeast infections. If a foreign object is present, your healthcare provider will remove it and may prescribe antibiotics to treat any potential infection. Treatment of abnormal bleeding or irregular periods depends on the cause.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have excessive vaginal bleeding, high fever (higher than 101°F), severe abdominal or pelvic pain, change in mental status, confusion, severe nausea and vomiting, or a weak pulse. Immediate medical care is also needed if you develop vaginal bleeding when you might be pregnant.
If you have a vaginal discharge that seems abnormal to you or that is accompanied by other symptoms that cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What are the types of vaginal discharge?
Women often associate color with types of vaginal discharge. Color can sometimes be helpful in understanding what is going on in the vagina. Vaginal discharge colors can include:
- Frothy, yellowish green vaginal discharge that has a bad smell can be a sign of trichomoniasis.
- Pinkish vaginal discharge may indicate the presence of blood or irritation.
- Thick and white vaginal discharge with a cottage cheese-like texture is common with a yeast infection.
- Yellowish or cloudy discharge could be gonorrhea or chlamydia.
- Whitish gray or yellowish discharge that smells fishy is often a sign of bacterial vaginosis.
What other symptoms might occur with vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that cause vaginal discharge can cause other genital symptoms and may affect other body systems.
Genital and reproductive tract symptoms that may occur along with vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge may accompany other symptoms affecting the genitals and reproductive tract including:
Genital pain or burning
Pain during sexual intercourse
Swelling and redness of the genital area
- Vaginal spotting or abnormal bleeding
Other symptoms that may occur along with vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Pain or burning with urination
- Urinary incontinence (inability to control urine)
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, vaginal discharge may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
What causes vaginal discharge?
Many women have a normal, clear or whitish vaginal discharge that does not have much of an odor. Changes in the color, odor or texture of the discharge may indicate that an infection is present, although some variation through the menstrual cycle is common.
Sexually transmitted infections are common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge, as are yeast infections. Other causes include foreign objects in the vagina and abnormal or irregular menstrual bleeding. Cervical or vaginal cancer are other possible causes of a change in vaginal discharge.
Infectious causes of vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge may be caused by infections including:
Bacterial vaginosis (imbalance of bacteria in the vagina, often involving overgrowth of the bacterium Gardnerella vaginalis)
Chlamydia (sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis)
Gonorrhea (sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae)
Trichomoniasis (sexually transmitted disease caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis)
Yeast infections (overgrowth of yeast, commonly Candida albicans, in the vagina)
Other causes of vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge can also be caused by other diseases, disorders or conditions including:
When should you see a doctor for vaginal discharge?
In general, changes in your vaginal discharge should prompt you to make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. See a doctor right away about abnormal vaginal discharge when:
You have a change in the amount, color or texture of your discharge.
You have an unpleasant or strong vaginal odor.
- You have had sex recently or think you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.
You have irregular spotting or bleeding.
You have used over-the-counter treatments and your symptoms still persist.
Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for abnormal vaginal discharge with any of the following:
How do doctors diagnose the cause of vaginal discharge?
To diagnose the cause of abnormal vaginal discharge, your doctor will take a medical history, perform an exam, and possibly order testing. Questions your doctor may ask include:
When did you first notice the discharge?
Can you describe the color and consistency of the discharge?
Does it have an odor?
Have you had discharge like this before?
Do you have any other symptoms like pain or itching?
Are you sexually active? When was the last time you had sex? Have you been with a new partner?
When was your last menstrual period?
What medications are you taking?
The physical exam will include a pelvic exam. During the pelvic exam, your doctor may take a sample of the discharge, do a Pap smear, and test the pH of your vagina. A lab can use the discharge sample to determine if an infection is causing it. Sometimes, it may be necessary to take a skin biopsy from the area.
How do you treat vaginal discharge?
Abnormal vaginal discharge is a symptom of an underlying problem. Treatment will depend on the condition causing the discharge. For infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antifungals, depending on the type of microorganism.
Bacterial infections require antibiotics for treatment. Usually, you can take the antibiotics by mouth, but you may also need a vaginal cream. Sometimes, doctors may give an intramuscular shot of an antibiotic in addition to a prescription for oral antibiotics. If you have a sexually transmitted infection, it may be necessary to treat your partner or partners as well.
Fungal infections, like yeast infections, need antifungal medicines. Usually, you use these products intravaginally. They come as creams, suppositories and tablets you place inside the vagina. There are both over-the-counter and prescription products available. Some are single dose products, while others require multiple doses.
For both antibiotics and antifungals, it is important to finish the entire course of medication. Failing to take all the medicine as your doctor prescribes can result in recurrence of the infection. Often, recurrent infections are more difficult to treat.
If you have noninfectious vaginitis, treatment will involve identifying irritants and avoiding them.
Home remedies for vaginal discharge
Home care cannot necessarily treat abnormal vaginal discharge, but you can take steps to improve your comfort. Good personal hygiene can also help prevent some of the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge. Self-care tips include:
After using the toilet, wipe from front to back.
Apply a cold compress to your genital area to relieve discomfort.
Avoid douches, vaginal sprays, spermicides, and scented soaps, detergents, powders, and feminine products, which can cause irritation and disturb the balance with healthy bacteria.
Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
Dry your genitals thoroughly, but gently, after bathing or showering. Pat the area with a towel or use cool air.
Practice safe sex by using a condom every time.
Use pads instead of tampons during an infection.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear or underwear with a cotton crotch lining to increase airflow and reduce moisture. Don’t wear underwear while sleeping.
What are the potential complications of vaginal discharge?
Because vaginal discharge can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, infection of a woman’s reproductive organs)
Spread of cancer
Spread of disease to close contact or sexual partner
- Toxic shock syndrome (life-threatening condition involving a rapid progression to shock that results from release of bacterial toxins)