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Vaginal Discharge: What’s Abnormal?

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Vaginal discharge serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.

Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary, as can odor and hue (its color can range from clear to a milky white-ish), depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. For example, there will be more discharge if you are ovulating, breastfeeding, or are sexually aroused. The smell may be different if you are pregnant or you haven't been diligent about your personal hygiene.

None of those changes is cause for alarm. However, if the color, smell, or consistency seems significantly unusual, especially if it accompanied by vaginal itching or burning, you could be noticing an infection or other condition.

 

What causes abnormal discharge?

Any change in the vagina's balance of normal bacteria can affect the smell, color, or discharge texture. These are a few of the things that can upset that balance:

  • Antibiotic or steroid use
  • Bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection more common in pregnant women or women who have multiple sexual partners
  • Birth control pills
  • Cervical cancer
  • Chlamydia or gonorrhea (STDs), sexually transmitted infections
  • Diabetes
  • Douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
  • Pelvic infection after surgery
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Trichomoniasis, a parasitic infection typically contracted and caused by having unprotected sex
  • Vaginal atrophy, the thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during menopause
  • Vaginitis, irritation in or around the vagina
  • Yeast infections

See the chart below to learn more about what a particular type of discharge might mean.

 

 

Types of Abnormal Discharge and Their Possible Causes

 

Type of DischargeWhat It Might MeanOther Symptoms
Bloody or brownIrregular menstrual cycles, or less often, cervical or endometrial cancerAbnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain
Cloudy or yellowGonorrheaBleeding between periods, urinary incontinence, pelvic pain
Frothy, yellow or greenish with a bad smellTrichomoniasisPain and itching while urinating
PinkShedding of the uterine lining after childbirth (lochia) 
Thick, white, cheesyYeast infectionSwelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse
White, gray, or yellow with fishy odorBacterial vaginosisItching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva
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