Vaginal discharge is a normal, healthy occurrence within the female body. Abnormal vaginal discharge can, however, be an indicator of a condition that requires treatment. Different conditions manifest themselves with different vaginal discharge. Understanding when a discharge is abnormal is imperative to recognizing conditions early on, and addressing them.
Vaginal Discharge: Why is it Helpful?
Vaginal discharge serves an important function in the female body. The vagina and cervix create fluids that wash away dead cells and harmful bacteria, helping to keep the body clean, and fighting infection.
So, a clear or white discharge is perfectly normal, and should be anticipated for women. There will be more discharge during ovulation, breastfeeding or sexual arousal.
What are Some Causes of Abnormal Discharges?
Vaginal discharges can be abnormal in frequency, consistency, color and odor. They may result from changes in body chemistry, including, but not limited to the following:
- Prescription drug use
- Birth control
- Pelvic inflammation
- Yeast infections
- Cervical cancer
- STDs or STIs
Abnormal Discharge: Identifying Factors
There are a few ways to discern whether or not vaginal discharge is abnormal. In seeking to determine the cause of the vaginal discharge, doctors will attempt to learn as much information as possible. To assist the doctor in determining the source of the discharge, be sure to pay attention to the following details about your discharge:
- How long has the discharge been occurring?
- What color is the discharge?
- Is there a distinct scent?
- Are there any accompanying sensations (pain, itching, or burning)?
- Are you in any pain or discomfort while urinating or during sex?
- How many sexual partners do you have?
- How do you clean your genital area?
Dramatic changes in the frequency, scent, or color/consistency of vaginal discharges should all be cause for concern. The color and consistency are generally more distinct, and can indicate the underlying cause of the vaginal discharge:
What Color are Abnormal Discharges, and What do They Mean?
Thick, white: A thick white discharge is normally indicative of a yeast infection. This discharge is usually accompanied by itching or soreness in the vagina, which may increase to pain or a burning sensation during urination or sex.
Yellow: A cloudy yellow discharge may be an indicator for gonorrhea, an STD. In addition to this discharge, there may also be sporadic bleeding, as well as incontinence. If you begin to notice a yellow discharge, be sure to get tested immediately.
Yellow/greenish: A yellow or green discharge with a frothy quality is most often an indicator of trichomoniasis, a common STD that may cause pain and itching during urination.
Pink: Also known as lochia, a pink discharge is normal for women who have recently given birth. This is the result of uterine lining shedding, and the discharge may be mixed with blood. This may continue for 4 to 6 weeks after birth.
Gray/Yellow: A gray/yellow discharge with a fishy odor is generally indicative of bacterial vaginosis. While not exactly an STD, bacterial vaginosis is more likely for women who have sex with multiple partners, or are pregnant. However, bacterial vaginosis is still somewhat difficult to detect, and symptoms often go unnoticed.
Brown: In some cases, there is residual blood from the most recent period. As routine, clear discharges take place, they may wash away this residual blood, thus creating a brown color. This is not great cause for concern, and more often than not simply means that the menstrual cycle is irregular. In other cases, this may indicate cervical or endometrial cancer. If you begin to notice a consistent brown discharge, contact your gynecologist immediately.
There is some overlap between discharge causes, meaning that it can be impossible to diagnose the reason for the discharge based entirely on the color.If you are experiencing a vaginal discharge, contact us to set up an appointment.
As specific vaginal discharges are symptomatic of certain conditions, treatments are largely determined by that condition. For the aforementioned discharges and their associated conditions, treatments might include anti fungal medication, antibiotic creams, or other pills.
Vaginal Discharge Prevention
To prevent abnormal vaginal discharge and potential discomfort:
- Wear cotton underwear. This material will be less irritating to the genitals, and more conducive to recovery and/or prevention.
- Wear loose fitting clothing. Clothing that constricts the lower body is likely to cause irritation, and should be avoided.
- Directly apply soaps to the genitals while bathing. Instead, cleanse with soapy water and dry with a clean towel. Additionally, avoid scented soaps, or products for other parts of the body.
- Douche. Though it has a reputation of cleaning the vagina, it actually removes infection-fighting bacteria, potentially replacing it with harmful bacteria. It also affects the natural acidity of the vagina.
Each individual’s body chemistry operates in its own way. Thus, it’s impossible to confidently make absolute statements about body conditions and their symptoms. Vaginal discharges are beneficial for learning about potential body conditions, but speaking with a qualified gynecologist is necessary to accurately determine the source of the condition. At Stony Brook Women’s Health, our experienced staff performs tests that enable us to determine the reason for the discharge with certainty. Contact us to schedule a routine appointment today.