Vaginal Discharge

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Introduction

What is vaginal discharge?

Many women have a normal vaginal discharge. It is typically clear or whitish and does not have much of an odor. Changes in the color, odor, or texture of the discharge may indicate that an infection is present, although some variation throughout the menstrual cycle is common. Infections may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, burning, discomfort or spotting.

Sexually transmitted infections are common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge. Trichomoniasis often results in a discharge that is yellow-green and frothy and has a bad smell. Gonorrhea and, less commonly, Chlamydia, may cause a yellowish or cloudy discharge. Bacterial vaginosis tends to cause a whitish-gray or yellowish discharge that smells fishy.

Yeast infections also produce a vaginal discharge. It tends to be thick and white and is sometimes described as having a cottage cheese-like texture. Other causes of vaginal discharge include foreign bodies in the vagina, such as an old tampon, abnormal bleeding or irregular menstrual bleeding, and cervical or vaginal cancer.

The treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge is based on the cause. Trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and bacterial vaginosis are all treatable with antibiotics, and antifungal medications can cure yeast infections. If a foreign body is present, your health care provider will remove it and may prescribe antibiotics to treat any potential infection. Treatment of abnormal bleeding or irregular periods depends on the cause, and cancer treatments depend on the type and stage of the cancer.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have excessive vaginal bleeding, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe abdominal or pelvic pain, change in mental status, confusion, severe nausea and vomiting, or a weak pulse. Immediate medical care is also needed if you develop vaginal bleeding when you might be pregnant.

If you have a vaginal discharge that seems abnormal to you or that is accompanied by other symptoms that cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that cause vaginal discharge can cause other genital symptoms and may affect other body systems.

Genital and reproductive tract symptoms that may occur along with vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge may accompany other symptoms affecting the genitals and reproductive tract including:

  • Genital pain or burning

  • Odor

  • Pain during sexual intercourse

  • Swelling and redness of the genital area

  • Vaginal itching

  • Vaginal spotting or abnormal bleeding

Other symptoms that may occur along with vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

  • Pain or burning with urination

  • Pelvic pain

  • Rash

  • Urinary incontinence (inability to control urine)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, vaginal discharge may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bleeding while pregnancy

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Excessive vaginal bleeding

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Severe nausea and vomiting

  • Severe pelvic or abdominal pain

  • Weak pulse

Causes

What causes vaginal discharge?

Many women have a normal, clear or whitish vaginal discharge that does not have much of an odor. Changes in the color, odor or texture of the discharge may indicate that an infection is present, although some variation through the menstrual cycle is common. Sexually transmitted infections are common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge, as are yeast infections. Other causes include foreign bodies in the vagina, abnormal bleeding or irregular menstrual bleeding, and cervical or vaginal cancer.

Infectious causes of vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge may be caused by infections including:

  • Bacterial vaginosis (imbalance of bacteria in the vagina, often involving overgrowth of the bacterium Gardnerella vaginalis)

  • Chlamydia (sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis)

  • Gonorrhea (sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae)

  • Trichomoniasis (sexually transmitted disease caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis)

  • Yeast infections (overgrowth of yeast, commonly Candida albicans, in the vagina)

Other causes of vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge can also be caused by other diseases, disorders or conditions including:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of vaginal discharge

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your vaginal discharge including:

  • When did you first notice the discharge?

  • Can you describe the color and consistency of the discharge?

  • Does it have an odor?

  • Have you had discharge like this before?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Have you been intimate with anyone who has similar symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of vaginal discharge?

Because vaginal discharge can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Ectopic pregnancy (life-threatening pregnancy growing outside the uterus)

  • Infertility

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, infection of a woman’s reproductive organs)

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of disease to close contact or sexual partner

  • Toxic shock syndrome (life-threatening condition involving a rapid progression to shock that results from release of bacterial toxins)
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 27
  1. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/stds/Pages/default.aspx.
  2. Sexually transmitted diseases. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/sexuallytransmitteddiseases.html.
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