Vaginal discharge is many at times a normal and frequent occurrence. But, there are some types of discharge that can point to the presence of an infection. Unhealthy discharge may have a yellow or green coloration, chunky in consistency, or give off a foul odour.
Bacterial or a yeast infection normally causes abnormal discharge. If you notice any discharge that looks unusual or smells foul, visit your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Types of vaginal discharge
There are many types of vaginal discharge. These types are grouped based on their color and frequency. Some types of discharge are normal. Others may point to an underlying condition that requires medical attention.
Brown or bloody
Brown or bloody discharge is usually normal, especially when it happens during or right after your menstrual cycle. A late discharge at the end of your period can come off brown instead of red. You may also experience a small amount of bloody discharge between periods. This is referred to as spotting.
If spotting happens during the normal time of your period and you’ve recently had intercourse without protection, this could be a sign of pregnancy. Spotting during an early phase of pregnancy can be a sign of miscarriage, so it should be discussed with your OB-GYN.
In rare events, brown or bloody discharge can be a sign of endometrial or cervical cancer. It can be other problems such as fibroids or other abnormal growths. This is why it’s important to get a yearly pelvic exam and Pap smear. Your gynecologist will look for cervical abnormalities during these procedures.
Yellow or green
A yellow or green discharge, especially when it’s thick, chunky, or accompanied by an unpleasant smell, isn’t normal. This type of discharge may be a sign of the infection trichomoniasis. It’s commonly spread through sexual intercourse.
A bit of white discharge, especially at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle, this is normal. But, if the discharge is followed by itching and has a thick, cottage cheese-like consistency or appearance, it’s abnormal and needs treatment. This type of discharge may be a sign of a yeast infection.
Clear and watery
A clear and watery discharge is again perfectly normal. It can happen at any time of the month. It may be especially heavy after exercise.
Clear and stretchy
When discharge is clear but stretchy and mucous-like, rather than watery, it indicates that you are likely ovulating. This is a normal type of discharge.
Causes of vaginal discharge
Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily action. It’s your body’s way of detoxing and protecting the vagina. For instance, it’s normal for discharge to increase with sexual arousal and ovulation. Workout, use of birth control pills, and emotional stress can also result in discharge.
Abnormal vaginal discharge, however, is usually caused by an infection.
Trichomoniasis is another type of infection. It’s caused by a protozoan, or single-celled organism. The infection is usually spread by sexual contact, but it can also be contracted by sharing towels or bathing suits. It results in a yellow or green discharge that has a foul odor. Pain, inflammation, and itching are also common symptoms, although some people don’t experience any symptoms.
Bacterial vaginosis is a quite common bacterial infection. It causes increased vaginal discharge that has a strong, foul, and sometimes fishy odor, although it produces no symptoms in some cases. Women who receive oral sex or who have multiple sexual partners have an increased risk of acquiring this infection.
A yeast infection is a fungal infection that produces white, cottage cheese-like discharge in addition to burning and itching sensations. The presence of yeast in the vagina is normal, but its growth can multiply out of control in certain situations. The following may increase your likelihood of yeast infections:
- use of birth control pills
- antibiotics, especially prolonged use over 10 days
Human papillomavirus (HPV) or cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is spread by sexual contact. It can lead to cervical cancer. While there may be no symptoms, this type of cancer can produce a bloody, brown, or watery discharge with an unpleasant odor. Cervical cancer can easily be screened for with yearly Pap smears and HPV testing.
Gonorrhea and chlamydia
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection that’s often spread by sexual contact. It occurs when bacteria spread up the vagina and into other reproductive organs. It may produce a heavy, foul-smelling discharge.
Is it time to seek medical help?
If you have an abnormal discharge alongside certain other symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible. The symptoms to watch out for include:
- pain in the abdomen
- unexplained weight loss
- increased urination
If you have any concerns regarding whether a discharge is normal, make an appointment to see your doctor.
What to expect at a doctor’s appointment
When you see your doctor for abnormal vaginal discharge, you’ll get a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. Your doctor will also ask you several questions about your symptoms, your menstrual cycle, and your sexual activity. In many cases, an infection can be detected by the physical or pelvic exam.
If your doctor can’t diagnose the problem immediately, they may order some tests. Your doctor may want to take a scraping from your cervix to check for HPV or cervical cancer. Your discharge may also be examined under a microscope to pinpoint an infectious agent. Once your doctor can tell you the cause of the discharge, you’ll be given treatment options.
Personal care for vaginal discharge
To prevent infections, maintain good hygiene and wear breathable cotton underwear. Don’t use douches, as they can make discharge worse by removing useful bacteria. Also, practice safe sex and use protection to avoid STIs.
To reduce the likelihood of yeast infections when taking antibiotics, eat yogurt that contains live and active cultures. If you know you have a yeast infection, you can also treat it with an over-the-counter yeast infection cream or suppository.