Vaginal discharge isn’t something most of us talk about much. However, learning what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to discharge can help you protect your health, know when it’s time to talk to your doctor, and understand when you might benefit from vaginal health testing.
Frequently Asked Questions about Vaginal Discharge
What is normal vaginal discharge and why does it happen?
The vagina starts secreting fluid at puberty, and this is normal, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). This clear-to-white and usually odorless discharge is a mix of water and the microbes that are present in a healthy vaginal microbiome.
This fluid is important, because it carries dead cells from the vaginal lining out of the body. If you’ve heard your health care provider describe the vagina as self-cleaning, this is what they’re referring to.
How much of this discharge is normal?
ACOG says that the volume varies “throughout the menstrual cycle.” If you’ve ever noticed that your vaginal fluid is stretchier and clearer at certain times of the month, you’re looking at what’s called “fertile mucous.” It means your body is ovulating.
Are there other types of vaginal discharge?
The short answer is yes. Here are the most common other types of vaginal discharge:
- Thick, white discharge can be normal, but if it has a cottage-cheese texture or if you feel itching and burning in your vaginal area, this discharge can indicate a yeast infection. If you’ve had yeast infections before, you’ll probably recognize the uncomfortable symptoms. If you’ve never had a yeast infection and you develop this kind of discharge, your health care provider may want to do vaginal health testing to confirm the cause before prescribing treatment.
- Brown vaginal discharge can be normal at the end of your menstrual period, as older blood leaves the body. Brown discharge can also be caused by “spotting” during early pregnancy. Health care providers recommend that you take a pregnancy test if you’re sexually active and have spotting instead of your normal period. In rare cases, brown discharge can be a warning sign for cervical cancer.
- Yellow or green discharge is not normal, and it usually means you have a bacterial infection or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Testing and treatment are important, because untreated bacterial and viral infections can cause long-term health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease, higher risk of infection with STIs, fertility problems and pregnancy complications.
No matter what color or consistency your vaginal discharge is, if you notice a fishy odor, itching, a burning sensation when you urinate, or pain during sex, contact your health care provider to see about getting tested for a vaginal infection.
What kinds of infections can cause unusual vaginal discharge?
In addition to yeast infections, abnormal discharge can be caused by:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV) – One-third of women in the U.S. get BV at some point, per the Cleveland Clinic. Even when a BV infection doesn’t have symptoms, it can cause serious health problems like postoperative infections and preterm births. BV is more common in sexually active women but can also occur in people who don’t have sex.
- Chlamydia – This STI can infect women without symptoms or cause a strong-smelling discharge and pain. Untreated, it can cause infertility, chronic pain and ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition. Because chlamydia can be passed from mother to baby during childbirth, public health officials recommend that pregnant women get tested during their first prenatal medical visit.
- Trichomoniasis – This common STI, also called “trich,” is caused by a parasite. Trich can cause greenish or yellowish discharge and pain, although in 70% of infections there are no symptoms. Trich, like BV, chlamydia and other vaginal infections, can increase the risk of infection with HIV and put pregnant women at risk for preterm delivery.
Other types of infection can also cause unusual discharge. Different infections may require different treatments, so it’s important to find the cause.
When is vaginal health testing a good idea?
If you have unusual vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse or when you urinate, or notice a fishy odor, your health care provider may recommend vaginal health testing to see if you have an infection and to identify the cause. Prompt, proper treatment can resolve your symptoms and protect your long-term health.
For more information on vaginal health testing, including tests for vaginal infections and vaginal microbiome testing, please visit mypathadvantage.com/faqs.