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Vaginal Discharge

QUICK FACTS

What is it?

  • Vaginal discharge is fluid—usually white or clear—that comes out of the vagina.
  • Increased vaginal discharge can be caused by normal menstrual cycle changes, vaginal infection, or cancer (rare).
  • Symptoms can include change in discharge color, smell, or amount.
  • Testing is available through a healthcare provider.
  • Treatment depends on the cause of the discharge.

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is fluid—usually white or clear—that comes out of the vagina. Most women have vaginal discharge. Some women have discharge every day, while other women only have discharge occasionally. If the discharge changes color, smells different, or gets heavier, then you may have a problem such as an infection.

Is vaginal discharge always normal?

The amount and consistency of vaginal discharge changes at different points in a woman’s menstrual cycle. Increased vaginal discharge can be caused by normal menstrual cycle changes, vaginal infection, or cancer (rare). If a woman has more than her usual amount of vaginal discharge, she may need to see her healthcare provider.

If a woman has discharge plus itching or burning near the vagina, she may have vaginitis. Vaginitis occurs when the vagina gets irritated or inflamed. Signs of vaginitis include:

  • Increased volume or frequency of discharge
  • A strong vaginal odor
  • Green, yellow, or gray color to the discharge
  • Vaginal itching
  • Vaginal pain
  • Redness around the opening of the vagina

Unusual vaginal discharge can also be a symptom of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of a woman’s reproductive organs often caused by some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Symptoms may include moderate to severe pain/tenderness in the lower abdomen.

What causes vaginitis?

Vaginitis can be caused by soaps, detergents, or chemicals in creams, bubble baths, liquids, sprays, or clothing that touch the area around the vagina. These can change the pH—or acidity—of the vagina, causing an overgrowth of the small amounts of yeast and bacteria that naturally occur in the vagina. These types of infection are referred to as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.

Vaginitis can also be due to an infection. In some cases, the infection is caused by germs that are passed during sex. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, and trichomoniasis are STDs that can cause vaginal discharge.

Douching is not recommended because it might increase the risk for vaginal infections and PID.

Are there tests for the causes of unusual vaginal discharge?

If you have a change in vaginal discharge, your healthcare provider may do tests to help figure out the problem. Possible tests may include:

  • Pelvic exam: Your healthcare provider looks at the vagina and cervix (the part of the uterus at the top of the vagina) and presses on the uterus and ovaries to check for abnormalities in the tissue and organs.
  • pH test: Your healthcare provider checks the acid level of the discharge as infections can cause changes in the pH—or acidity—of the vagina.
  • Wet mount: A sample of discharge is examined under the microscope to check for a yeast, bacterial, or trichomonas infection that may be causing the discharge.
  • STD testing: A sample of the discharge is taken from the vagina or cervix and is sent to a lab to test for gonorrheachlamydia, trichomonas (the STD that causes trichomoniasis), or other organisms that may be causing the vaginal discharge.

How is vaginal discharge treated?

Normal vaginal discharge does not need treatment. Some women douche to remove vaginal discharge, but using a douche is not a good idea. A douche washes away the healthy bacteria in the vagina and can cause other health problems. The healthy bacteria is needed to help prevent other infections.

Treatment of abnormal discharge depends on what is causing the problem.

  • Vaginal infections are treated with antibiotic medication to kill bacteria or other medications that kill yeast.
    • If you have an STD, you and your sexual partner(s) need to be treated. If medication is given to treat an infection, it is important to finish all of the medication, even if symptoms get better before you finish the medication. It is important that you and your partner complete all treatment before resuming sexual activities. You may need to be re-tested to make sure the STD has been cured or to be sure you have not been infected again.
  • Vaginitis due to menopause can be treated with vaginal cream that may contain estrogen.
  • Vaginitis caused by chemicals is treated by avoiding products that may cause it.

Products that can irritate the vagina include:

  • Feminine hygiene sprays
  • Colored or perfumed toilet paper
  • Sanitary pads or tampons that contain a deodorant
  • Soap or body wash
  • Body cream or lotion
  • Bubble bath
  • Laundry detergent
  • Fabric softener

When should a woman see a healthcare provider about vaginal discharge?

You should see a healthcare provider if you have:

  • A lot more discharge than what is usual for you
  • Green or yellow discharge
  • Strong or bad odor
  • Itching or pain around the vagina
  • Pain in the pelvic (lower belly) area
  • Pain with intercourse (sex)
 

Did You Know?

Some vaginal discharge is normal, but changes in color, texture, or odor may be a sign of infection or STDs.

LEARN MORE ABOUT SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES

 

Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on November 28, 2017