Changes in Vaginal Discharge: What Is Normal and What Is Not?

Vaginal discharge is a fluid produced by glands inside the vagina and the uterus. Discharge from the vagina is normal and indicates its proper function. The discharge keeps the vagina's pH in check, keeps it lubricated and clean (by removing germs and dead cells), and therefore guards against vaginal infection.

Key takeaways:
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    Having vaginal discharge is normal.
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    If you notice any discharge changes in color, odor, texture, or amount, it is recommended to contact your doctor because it may be a sign of a vaginal infection.
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    You can prevent a vaginal infection by practicing proper genital hygiene.

What does normal discharge look like?

Everyone has a different quantity, color, odor, and texture of vaginal discharge. Your age, the day of your cycle, the use of hormonal contraception, and whether you are pregnant, or nursing all have a role in this. The color of normal vaginal discharge could range from clear to milky white. It shouldn't smell foul, and its consistency may fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle.

The characteristics of normal discharge:

Color: If the discharge is between clear and milky white, it is healthy.

Smell: In most situations, vaginal discharge is odorless, but occasionally it may have an acidic odor; this odor shouldn't be unpleasant or overpowering.

Consistency: Your cycle and hormones will determine this. The discharge is thin at the beginning of your cycle. It starts to become watery and stringy, resembling egg whites, as ovulation approaches. It thickens and becomes creamier as your menstruation gets closer.

Quantity: While some women have a lot of vaginal discharge, others have less. A teaspoon of discharge every day is considered normal. How much vaginal discharge you experience might vary depending on several factors, including ovulation, pregnancy, and the use of birth control pills.

What do color changes mean?

White

White discharge is most likely an indication of good lubrication if you don't have any other symptoms. However, a yeast infection is typically suspected when the white discharge resembles thick cottage cheese and is accompanied by a strong odor, itching, or irritation. In this circumstance, you should see a physician.

Gray

Gray vaginal discharge is unhealthy and can indicate the presence of bacterial vaginosis, a widespread bacterial infection. It is advised that you visit a doctor if this occurs to you.

Yellow/green

A darker shade of yellow, yellowish-green, or green discharge usually indicates a sexually transmitted infection. See a doctor promptly if vaginal discharge is green, thick, or clumpy, it has a foul odor, or you have a fever and pelvic pain.

Pink/red/brown

It's common to notice any variation of red-colored discharge a few days before or after your period. However, these discharge changes in between your period are called spotting. It can be caused by inflammation, precancerous growth, or trauma in the genital tract. So, if your period is nowhere close and you notice red discharge, you should see a doctor.

What causes the change in vaginal discharge?

Yeast infection

Vaginal yeast infections can occur when pH levels in the vagina change, and a fungus (candida) overgrow in the vagina. These alterations to the environment are usually caused by prolonged use of antibiotics, birth control pill, stress, or diabetes. Changes in vaginal discharge (which resembles thick white curd) as well as itching, irritation, and swelling of the vaginal lips are all signs of a yeast infection. The only way to treat a yeast infection is with antifungal medication, such as fluconazole or miconazole.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) indicates a change in pH in the vagina. It is associated with douching, having a new sexual partner, or multiple sexual partners, and using scented soaps. This results in the overgrowth of specific bacteria, which leads to gray discharge. The color change in discharge is accompanied by the appearance of an ammonia-like odor (fishy/metallic smell). Usually, it is not associated with itching or irritation. The antibiotic metronidazole is the most effective treatment for bacterial vaginosis.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a parasite-based sexually-transmitted infection (STI) that is spread through sexual contact. Up to half of those affected are asymptomatic. Those who do feel symptoms frequently experience a foul-smelling discharge that is yellow, green, or foamy. Typical symptoms include pain, swelling, and itching of the vagina, especially when peeing or engaging in sexual activity. Trichomoniasis can be effectively treated with an antibiotic called metronidazole.

Chlamydia and Gonorrhea

Chlamydia and gonorrhea are two common STIs that can cause an abnormal discharge due to infecting the cervix. Some people with these infections have cloudy, yellow, or green vaginal discharge. Additionally, you could have a stomachache, pain when peeing, bleeding after penetrating vaginal sex, and bleeding in between periods. However, not everyone has symptoms. Both infections are treated with antibiotics (such as doxycycline and ceftriaxone) from your healthcare provider.

Genital herpes

This is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a virus called herpes simplex. This STI may cause painful, itchy sores and blisters near the genitalia, as well as thick, profuse vaginal discharge. Additionally, possible symptoms include burning when peeing and bleeding between periods. However, few or no symptoms are present in most genital herpes patients. You may experience repeated outbreaks throughout your life because there is no cure for genital herpes. But there is an antiviral medicine that can modulate the course of the disease by preventing or shortening outbreaks (such as valacyclovir).

How to prevent vaginal infections?

You must understand genital hygiene to maintain good vaginal health.

Practice good personal hygiene. Wash the outside of the vulva daily with warm water. Clean the vagina from front to back. Avoid using douches or perfumed hygiene products including soaps, bubble baths, vaginal deodorants, and wipes.

Practice safe sex. The only way to protect yourself from STIs is by using barrier contraception (male or female condoms). Other contraception methods, such as birth control pills, implants, or IUDs don’t protect you from getting sexually transmitted diseases.

Wear cotton underwear: this ensures breathability. Synthetic undergarments are linked to sweating and moisture retention, which can promote the growth of yeast or bacteria.

In the event of being on a prolonged antibiotic medication, use probiotics.

In case of repeated vaginal infections, check your blood sugar.

When should you see a doctor?

It is recommended to contact your physician if there are:

  • An unusual change in the color of vaginal discharge
  • A foul smell
  • A sudden uncommon increase in the amount of the discharge
  • A shift in the texture of your discharge
  • Itchiness or pain around your genital area
  • Rashes, sores, and blisters around the vulva
  • Painful urination
  • Bleeding in between your period
  • Fever
  • Pain in the pelvic area

It's normal to have vaginal discharge, but it's advised to see a doctor if you notice any variations in the color, odor, consistency, or quantity of your discharge, as these could be symptoms of a vaginal infection. If you have any questions or worries relating to your health, the best source of information is your doctor.

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