Vaginal discharge is fluid that contains a mix of vaginal secretions and cervical mucus. The amount of vaginal discharge produced varies from woman to woman but is often normal and healthy.
Pregnancy, changing hormones, or the presence of an infection can also affect the consistency and amount of vaginal discharge.
Usually, vaginal discharge starts after a girl gets her first menstrual period and has several functions. It naturally keeps the vagina clean, provides lubrication during sexual intercourse, and may help prevent infection.
What is normal vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge may change in appearance during the menstrual cycle.
Vaginal discharge can be abnormal or normal. In many cases, it does not signify a problem.
Normal vaginal discharge is clear, may be thick or thin, and is usually odorless. The amount produced and the consistency may change at different times during a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle.
For instance, discharge may become heavier, thicker, and more noticeable when a woman is ovulating. It may also be white at this time.
The amount of discharge may also change due to sexual activity and the use of birth control.
Types of vaginal discharge
There are different types of vaginal discharge based on consistency and color. Changes in the color, amount, or smell of vaginal discharge may indicate a problem.
In some cases, it is difficult to make a diagnosis based on vaginal discharge alone. Other symptoms such as burning, itchiness, or irritation are often a better indication of a problem.
Below are different types of vaginal discharge and their possible causes.
Different shades of white discharge may be normal, especially if it occurs during ovulation or just before a woman’s period. As long as there is no vaginal itching, burning, or unusual smell accompanying the discharge, there is probably no underlying issue.
But in other instances, white vaginal discharge could be a sign of an infection. If the discharge is clumpy and looks similar to cottage cheese, it may be due to a yeast infection.
A yeast infection may also cause vaginal itching and burning. It occurs due to an overgrowth of a type of fungus called Candida.
Thin, white vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy odor may indicate bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is the most common vaginal infection in women between 15 and 44. Other symptoms may include burning on urination and vaginal itching.
Yellow discharge is often harmless, although in some cases it may be a symptom of an STI.
Yellow discharge may or may not indicate an infection. If the discharge is a pale yellow, odorless, and not accompanied by other symptoms, it may not be a cause for concern.
In other instances, yellow discharge can be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or a bacterial infection.
Causes of yellow discharge include:
- Trichomoniasis, which may also cause itching, pain during urination, and an unpleasant odor.
- Chlamydia, which often does not have any symptoms.
Clear vaginal discharge is typically normal. However, the amount may vary during a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle and between individuals.
For instance, clear discharge may be stretchy and have an egg white consistency around the time of ovulation.
Normal vaginal discharge does not need to be prevented. However, taking the following precautions can sometimes prevent abnormal discharge:
- Avoid douching, which can destroy the good bacteria that help prevent vaginal infections.
- Wear cotton underwear, which absorbs moisture and may prevent a yeast infection.
- Practice safe sex by using a condom, limiting the number of sexual partners, and getting tested regularly for STIs.
- Use unscented soaps, tampons, and pads. Scented or strong products may disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina, which can increase the risk of infection.
When to see a doctor
Abnormal discharge may be a sign of infection and may require medical attention.
Vaginal discharge is often nothing to be concerned about, but there are times when changes in discharge can indicate a problem.
Different types of infections can have similar symptoms, but they are treated differently. It is essential to see a doctor if any of the following develops:
- green, yellow, or gray discharge
- vaginal itching or burning
- discharge that is frothy, foamy, or looks like cottage cheese
- a fishy or unpleasant odor
- pelvic pain
To determine the cause of abnormal discharge, the doctor may ask about any additional symptoms, a person’s general health, and their sexual history.
Treatment for the underlying cause of abnormal vaginal discharge will vary and may include antibiotics or antifungal medication.
Vaginal discharge is often normal, but there are instances when the color, amount, or consistency of discharge may indicate a problem.
Yeast infections, STIs, and BV can all lead to a change in vaginal discharge. In most cases, causes of abnormal vaginal discharge can be treated successfully.