Vaginal Discharge: What’s Abnormal?

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:

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 Discharge What It Might Mean Other Symptoms
Bloody or brown Irregular menstrual cycles, or less often, cervical or endometrial cancer Abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain
Cloudy or yellow Gonorrhea Bleeding between periods, urinary incontinence, pelvic pain
Frothy, yellow or greenish with a bad smell Trichomoniasis Pain and itching while urinating
Pink Shedding of the uterine lining after childbirth (lochia)
Thick, white, cheesy Yeast infection Swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse
White, gray, or yellow with fishy odor Bacterial vaginosis Itching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva

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How does the doctor diagnose abnormal discharge?

The doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms. Questions may include:

  • When did the abnormal discharge begin?
  • What color is the discharge?
  • Is there any smell?
  • Do you have any itching, pain, or burning in or around the vagina?
  • Do you have more than one sexual partner?
  • Do you douche?

The doctor may take a sample of the discharge or do a Pap test to collect cells from your cervix for further examination.

How is abnormal discharge treated?

How you are treated will depend on what’s causing the problem. For example, yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal medications inserted into the vagina in cream or gel form. Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotic pills or creams. Trichomoniasis is usually treated with the drug metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).

Here are some tips for preventing vaginal infections that can lead to abnormal discharge:

  • Keep the vagina clean by washing regularly with a gentle, mild soap and warm water.
  • Never use scented soaps and feminine products or douche. Also avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
  • After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into the vagina and causing an infection.
  • Wear 100% cotton underpants, and avoid overly tight clothing.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Trina Pagano, MD on September 28, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institutes of Health: ''What is Vaginitis?''

American Family Physician, 2004; vol 69: pp 2191-2192.

Mitchell, H. BMJ, 2004; vol 328: pp 1306-1308.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: ''Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2010.''

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