Vaginal Discharge: A Comprehensive Overview
Vaginal discharge is the fluid that comes out of your vagina to keep it clean and prevent it from getting an infection. The amount of vaginal discharge varies from time to time as does the color, odor, and consistency. Normal vaginal discharge is clear or white and has a musky, tangy, or sour odor.
Although vaginal discharge keeps changing to some extent throughout the month, it usually remains within a normal range most of the time. However, you should contact your doctor if you notice any major changes in color, odor, or texture. These changes often occur as a result of an underlying infection or disease.
This article takes a deep dive into different types of vaginal discharge, their causes, and when it might be necessary to get medical care.
What Are the Types of Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge has many types, often based on color, texture, and odor. While slight variations — depending on age and where you are in your monthly cycle — are normal, severe and sudden changes may require medical care.
Different types of vaginal discharge you may encounter include:
It is the typical vaginal discharge that is thick and sticky and has no strong odor. While it is normal to experience such discharge before or right after menstruation, white discharge with cottage cheese consistency and unpleasant odor may indicate a yeast infection.
Clear, thin, and watery
Clear and watery discharge is often seen before ovulation. However, you may also experience it when you are sexually aroused. In addition, a clear and watery discharge can also be one of the earliest signs of pregnancy.
Clear but stretchy
During ovulation, your vaginal discharge becomes clear and stretchy, like egg white. The purpose of clear and watery or clear and stretchy discharge is to make it easy for the sperm to swim up to meet an egg during ovulation.
Yellow or green
Yellow discharge may or may not be a cause for concern. The reason is that vaginal discharge often turns yellow upon air exposure, usually before menstruation. When the discharge is pale-yellow and odorless, it is normal. However, darker yellow or green discharge that is thick and chunky and has an unpleasant odor is often a sign of a sexually transmitted disease. You must seek immediate medical care if you notice such discharge.
Brown with light bleeding
In addition to experiencing such discharge at the end of menstruation, it is normal to experience it at any time of the month. Such discharge with light bleeding is known as spotting. While spotting differs from normal menstrual bleeding, it can still occur during menstruation. In addition, spotting also may occur after unprotected sex. Although spotting usually indicates pregnancy, miscarriage can also cause a brown or bloody discharge.
What Are The Causes Of Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is a body fluid released from the glands in the walls of the vagina and uterus. Its consistency, color, and odor fluctuate with estrogen levels. While the amount of discharge varies from time to time, if you notice an increased discharge, it may be due to ovulation, contraceptives, sexual arousal, or even a sign of pregnancy.
Humans contain trillions of microbes on and inside different parts of our bodies; the same is true with a vagina. A delicate balance of harmful and health-promoting bacteria, fungi, and other microbes in your vagina determines the color, odor, and consistency of your vaginal discharge.
Unfortunately, when this balance is disturbed in favor of the harmful microbes, you become more susceptible to getting an infection. Some of the possible infections you need to know include:
Bacterial vaginosis is one of the most common vaginal infections. When you get bacterial vaginosis, you may experience a vaginal discharge that is increased in amount, gray in color, thin and watery in consistency, and foul-smelling, sometimes with a fishy odor. If you experience frequent incidents you may consider using boric acid vaginal suppositories.
However, it is possible that you may not have any of these symptoms and still have bacterial vaginosis. Even though bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted infection, it increases your risk of contracting one.
In addition, your risk of getting bacterial vaginosis increases if:
- You are sexually active
- Have multiple sexual partners
- Have recently gotten a new sexual partner
- You use intrauterine devices
It is a parasitic infection that usually spreads through sexual contact. However, your risk of getting trichomoniasis increases if you share towels or bathing suits. While nearly half of the people do not develop any symptoms, others often notice a discharge that is yellow-green in color and has a bad odor. Furthermore, trichomoniasis causes pain, and irritation in the vagina. Pain may also occur during urination or while having sex.
It is a common fungal infection of the vagina that affects three out of four women once in their lifetime. The infection leads to a white discharge that is thick, often similar to cottage cheese. The discharge is usually odorless. Also known as vaginal candidiasis, vaginal yeast infection also causes pain, and irritation of the vagina and vulva. In addition, it also causes soreness during intercourse and urination.
Several factors lead to an increased risk of getting a yeast infection, including:
- Anxiety and stress
- High Blood sugar level (diabetes)
- Use of contraceptives
- Prolonged use of antibiotics
Gonorrhea And Chlamydia
These are well-known sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These bacteria infect the cervix and produce an abnormal discharge that is often yellowish green, or hazy in color. In addition, you may also notice the following symptoms:
- Pain during urination
- Pain in the stomach or below (in the pelvis)
- Pain after intercourse (involving penetration)
- Bleeding after sex and in between periods
However, some people do not show any symptoms at all.
Genital herpes is caused by the human simplex virus (HSV). The infection primarily spreads through sexual contact, whether vaginal or oral. The virus remains dormant in the body after the initial infection and may reactivate many times over the year with repeated outbreaks throughout your life. Symptoms of genital herpes include:
- Thick vaginal discharge
- Strong, foul, and pungent odor smell, often described as a fishy odor
- Sores and blisters on the skin of genitals
- Bleeding between menstruation
- Burning sensation during urination
However, you may not develop any symptoms and still have genital herpes.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) is an infection of the upper reproductive organs like the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tube.
PID causes symptoms like:
- Discharge with an unpleasant odor
- Stomach pain or pain in the pelvis
- Pain during or after sex
- Pain during and after menstruation
- Pain while urinating
- Heavy periods, with bleeding in between and after sex
Bacteria are usually the main culprits behind PID, especially gonorrhea and chlamydia. PID follows an untreated sexually transmitted infection as the bacteria move up to other parts of the reproductive tract from the vagina.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is another viral infection that spreads through unprotected sex, be it vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The HPV virus is most infamous for causing genital warts and cervical cancer. The infection usually does not cause any symptoms most of the time. However, cervical cancer can cause the following symptoms:
- Brown and bloody or watery discharge
- Foul-smelling discharge that is increased in amount
- Heavy menstruation
- Unusual bleeding between menstruation or after intercourse
- Pain during sex
- Pain during urination
However, brown and bloody discharge is not always caused by cervical cancer. In rare instances, it may signify endometrial cancer or fibroids.
When To See A Doctor Or Other Health Provider
While certain changes in vaginal discharge are normal, seek immediate medical help if you notice:
- A change in the color of vaginal discharge from clear white to greenish, yellowish, or brown and bloody
- A change in the odor of vaginal discharge from mild, musky to a strong, foul or fishy odor
- The discharge becomes thick and cheesy
- Redness, burning, and itching in your vagina or the skin around the vagina and Vulva
While some disease conditions are not serious, others are a cause for concern. Never hesitate to contact your doctor since certain conditions can be extremely severe and necessitate immediate medical care to prevent complications.