Vaginal discharge is most often a normal and regular occurrence. However, there are certain types of discharge that can indicate an infection. Abnormal discharge may be yellow or green, chunky in consistency, or foul smelling.
Yeast or a bacterial infection usually causes abnormal discharge. If you notice any discharge that looks unusual or smells foul, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Types of vaginal discharge
There are several different types of vaginal discharge. These types are categorized based on their color and consistency. Some types of discharge are normal. Others may indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment.
A bit of white discharge, especially at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle, is normal. However, if the discharge is accompanied by itching and has a thick, cottage cheese-like consistency or appearance, it’s not normal and needs treatment. This type of discharge may be a sign of a yeast infection.
Clear and watery
A clear and watery discharge is perfectly normal. It can occur at any time of the month. It may be especially heavy after exercise.
Clear and stretchy
When discharge is clear but stretchy and mucous-like, rather than watery, it indicates that you are likely ovulating. This is a normal type of discharge.
Brown or bloody
Brown or bloody discharge is usually normal, especially when it occurs during or right after your menstrual cycle. A late discharge at the end of your period can look brown instead of red. You may also experience a small amount of bloody discharge between periods. This is called spotting.
If spotting occurs during the normal time of your period and you’ve recently had sex without protection, this could be a sign of pregnancy. Spotting during an early phase of pregnancy can be a sign of miscarriage.
In rare cases, brown or bloody discharge can be a sign of endometrial or cervical cancer. It could be other problems such as fibroids or other abnormal growths. This is why it’s important to get a yearly pelvic exam and Pap smear. A Pap smear, also called a (Pap test), is a procedure to test for cervical cancer in women. A Pap smear involves collecting cells from your cervix — the lower, narrow end of your uterus that’s at the top of your vagina. Detecting cervical cancer early with a Pap smear gives you a greater chance at a cure.
Yellow or green
A yellow or green discharge, especially when it’s thick, chunky, or accompanied by an unpleasant smell, is not normal at all. This type of discharge may be a sign of the infection trichomoniasis. It’s commonly spread through sexual intercourse.
Causes of vaginal discharge
Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function. It’s your body’s way of cleaning and protecting the vagina. For instance, it’s normal for discharge to increase with sexual arousal and ovulation. Exercise, use of birth control pills, and emotional stress may also result in discharge.
Abnormal vaginal discharge, however, is usually caused by an infection.
Bacterial vaginosis is a quite common bacterial infection. It causes increased vaginal discharge that has a strong, foul, and sometimes fishy odor, although it produces no symptoms in some cases. Women who receive oral sex or who have multiple sexual partners have an increased risk of acquiring this infection.
Trichomoniasis is another type of infection. It’s caused by a protozoan, or single-celled organism. The infection is usually spread by sexual contact, but it can also be contracted by sharing towels or bathing suits. It results in a yellow or green discharge that has a foul odor. Pain, inflammation, and itching are also common symptoms, although some people don’t experience any symptoms.
A yeast infection is a fungal infection that produces white, cottage cheese-like discharge in addition to burning and itching sensations. The presence of yeast in the vagina is normal, but its growth can multiply out of control in certain situations. The following may increase your likelihood of yeast infections:
Use of birth control pills
Antibiotics, especially prolonged use over 10 days
Gonorrhea and chlamydia
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that can produce an abnormal discharge. It’s often yellow, greenish, or cloudy in color.
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection that’s often spread by sexual contact. It occurs when bacteria spread up the vagina and into other reproductive organs. It may produce a heavy, foul-smelling discharge.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) or cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is spread by sexual contact. It can lead to cervical cancer. While there may be no symptoms, this type of cancer can produce a bloody, brown, or watery discharge with an unpleasant odor. Cervical cancer can easily be screened for with yearly Pap smears and HPV testing.
When to seek medical help
If you have unusual discharge alongside certain other symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. The symptoms to watch out for include:
Pain in the abdomen
Unexplained weight loss
If you have any concerns regarding whether a discharge is normal, make an appointment to see your doctor.
What to expect at a doctor’s appointment
When you see your doctor for abnormal vaginal discharge, you’ll get a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. Your doctor will also ask you several questions about your symptoms, your menstrual cycle, and your sexual activity. In many cases, an infection can be detected by the physical or pelvic exam.
If your doctor can’t diagnose the problem immediately, they may order you run some tests to know the root cause of your abnormal discharge before treatment.
How to prevent vaginal discharge
To prevent infections, practice good hygiene and wear breathable cotton underwear. Don’t use douches, as they can make discharge worse by removing useful bacteria. Also, practice safe sex and use protection to avoid STIs.