Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of the female body’s cleansing system. It’s designed to flush dead cells and protect the vagina from infection. Most discharge contains secretions from glands in the vagina and cervix.1 It is usually clear to milky white in color.2,3 Under normal circumstances, discharge shouldn’t irritate your vulva or vagina, and it doesn’t have an unpleasant odor.1

Causes for Abnormal Discharge1

Changes in the balance of the vaginal environment due to infection, hormonal fluctuations, medication or environmental irritants can cause changes in discharge. Abnormal discharge may be due to:

  • A vaginal yeast infection
  • Bacterial vaginosis, which is an overgrowth of normal bacteria that live in the vagina
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI), including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis
  • Diabetes
  • Cervical cancer
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
  • Menopause and low estrogen levels, which may lead to vaginal dryness3
  • Birth control pills
  • Antibiotics or steroid use
  • Chemicals found in detergents, fabric softeners, feminine sprays, ointments, creams, douches, and contraceptive foams or jellies or creams, which may irritate the vagina or the skin around the vagina3

What to Look Out For

Under normal circumstances, vaginal discharge is typically clear to milky white in color with no unpleasant odor. Specific changes in your discharge can point to a number of infections or STIs:1

If Your Discharge Is… You May Have… Related Symptoms
Thick, white, cottage cheese like Vaginal yeast infection Swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse
Thin, white or gray with a fishy odor Bacterial vaginosis Itching or burning, redness and swelling of the vagina or vulva
Cloudy or yellow Gonorrhea Bleeding between periods, urinary incontinence, pelvic pain
Frothy, yellow or greenish with a foul smell Trichomoniasis Pain and itching while urinating

When to See Your Doctor

Having discharge daily or only occasionally are both completely normal. It’s not the frequency, but the characteristics of the discharge that may or may not be normal.2 It’s a good idea to become familiar with the frequency and quality of your regular vaginal discharge so you can recognize any changes that may occur. It’s important to see your healthcare professional as soon as possible for a diagnosis if you notice:

  • A sudden change in the amount, color, odor, or consistency of discharge3
  • Itching, redness, and swelling in the vaginal area
  • Fever or pain in your pelvis or belly area2
  • Pain during sex2

Tips for Staying Healthy

Remember that normal vaginal discharge is healthy—it’s your body’s way of keeping your vagina clean and protected. And while you may not always be able to avoid an infection, you can follow general guidelines for staying healthy:3

  • Avoid douching, which may worsen unpleasant symptoms because it removes healthy bacteria that line the vagina
  • Avoid hygiene sprays, fragrances, or powders
  • Use pads and not tampons while you have an infection
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar levels in good control
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes
  • Wear cotton underwear or underwear that has a cotton-lined crotch

Sources:

1. Vaginal Discharge: What’s Abnormal? WebMD. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/women/guide/vaginal-discharge-whats-abnormal#1. Accessed October 14, 2016.
2. Vaginal Discharge Fact Sheet. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services web site. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/general-reproductive-health/vaginal-discharge/. Accessed October 14, 2016.
3. Vaginal Itching and Discharge – Adult and Adolescent. U.S. National Library of Medicine web site. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003158.htm. Accessed October 14, 2016.