Symptoms A-Z

When is Vaginal Discharge Normal...and When is it Not?

Understand your vaginal discharge symptoms, 10 causes & treatment options for your vaginal discharge.

This symptom can also be referred to as: cervical mucus, fluid from the vagina

Vaginal Discharge Symptom Checker

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Vaginal Discharge Symptoms

Let's face it. Vaginal discharge can be uncomfortable to have and embarrassing to discuss. Many women may associate the problem with an infection and hesitate to talk with friends or even her doctor. In reality, discharge comes in a rainbow of colors and consistencies. More often than not, it's a completely normal way to keep the area clean and healthy but can be related to infections and other conditions that need medical care.

Most women have some regular vaginal discharge, though the amount can vary widely. Some have it every day and others just occasionally. For most, it is clear or white in color though this can vary too, especially during pregnancy or menstruation. The discharge can also change depending on time in the menstrual cycle or during exercise or sexual activity. Discharge may deserve more attention when it changes suddenly or is associated with certain symptoms [1].

Common characteristics of abnormal vaginal discharge

Some concerning symptoms include:

Vaginal Discharge Causes

Remember that most discharge is normal and is the body's natural lubricant and cleaning fluid. There are many underlying reasons for this natural bodily function.

In some categories, such as infection or mediation use, vaginal discharge can change and should be evaluated by a doctor.

Physiological (normal) causes

Causes of vaginal discharge that are simply normal bodily processes include the following.

  • Ovulation: Many women have an increase in clear, sticky discharge at this time of the cycle.
  • Pregnancy: Thin, white discharge with mild odor is common in pregnancy women.
  • Exercise: Increased physical exertion can cause an increase in amount of normal discharge.
  • Sexual activity: This is the body's natural response to sexually arousing situations.
  • Everyday discharge: A small amount of clear to white discharge is a natural way of keeping things clean. Most do not even notice this discharge, but it can leave faint yellow discoloration on underwear.

Infectious causes

Infectious causes of vaginal discharge may include the following.

  • Sexually transmitted infections: STIs can cause an increase in discharge that is often an unusual color or has a bad odor. However, remember that many cases cause no symptoms and regular screenings are essential for those at risk. Sometimes this discharge is thick, yellow or even green in color [2].
  • Bacterial overgrowth: The body's natural methods of keeping bacteria at bay can be disrupted by changes like a new sexual partner or vaginal douching. This often has a fishy odor.
  • Yeast infections: Often caused by a species of yeast called Candida albicans, these infections cause itching and thick, cottage cheese-like discharge [3].

Other causes

Other causes of vaginal discharge you may not be considering include the following.

  • Diabetes: High blood sugar increases the risk of vaginal infections that may cause discharge.
  • Antibiotics: These medications may affect the normal bacteria in the vagina and cause a yeast infection.
  • Birth control pills: Hormonal contraception can cause a change in vaginal discharge that is usually harmless.
  • Foreign body: Objects like a retained tampon or toilet paper lead to discomfort and discharge. This often has a very bad odor as well.
  • Cancer: In rare cases, vaginal discharge may indicate a more serious problem, especially if it is bloodier than your typical menstrual cycle. All bloody discharge in post-menopausal women should be evaluated right away [4].

10 Possible Vaginal Discharge Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced vaginal discharge. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is an inflammation of the vagina due to overgrowth of the bacteria which are normally present.

It is not considered an STD (sexually transmitted disease) but nearly all cases are found in women after unprotected sexual contact, especially with multiple partners. Frequent douching is also a factor.

Male partners do not carry this condition, but it can spread between female partners.

Common symptoms include an itchy, foul-smelling discharge that may look grayish or greenish, as well as burning during urination. However, some women have no symptoms.

The greatest risks of bacterial vaginosis are secondary. The symptoms can be similar to actual STDs and so should not be ignored. This condition makes a woman more vulnerable to actual STDs, as well as to pelvic inflammatory disease and to infections following any gynecologic surgery.

Pregnant women with bacterial vaginosis are at risk for premature or low-birth-weight babies.

Diagnosis is made through symptoms, and/or pelvic exam and vaginal swab.

Treatment consists of oral medication, and sometimes a cream or gel that is inserted into the vagina.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: vaginal itch or burning, vulvovaginal odor, bloody vaginal discharge, white/gray vaginal discharge, thick vaginal discharge

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Yeast infection

Yeast infections are due to alterations in the balance of microscopic organisms in the vulvar and vaginal regions. The term "yeast infection" is most commonly used to describe symptoms caused by the fungus Candida albicans.

Symptoms include itching of the vaginal and vulva, burning, redness...

Symptoms of menopause

Menopause is the name for the natural process by which the menstrual cycle (period) stops happening in a woman. Usually, the process is gradual (takes months or years) and occurs from the age of 45 to 55 years. Menopause is officially diagnosed once a woman stops having a period for 12 months continuously. A woman with menopause will notice a decrease in the number and regularity of her periods until they completely stop. In addition, she may notice a number of symptoms that occur as a result of decreased estrogen levels, such as hot flashes, changes in mood, sleep problems, vaginal dryness, changes in libido, and changes in sexual function. Certain medications exist that can decrease these symptoms.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, delay in or irregular periods, vaginal discharge, anxiety, trouble sleeping

Symptoms that always occur with symptoms of menopause: delay in or irregular periods

Urgency: Self-treatment

Atrophic vaginitis

Atrophic vaginitis is a common condition that may affect up to 47% of postmenopausal women. It occurs due to low levels of estrogen which can be caused by menopause, medical treatments, and hormonal conditions, among other things.

Symptoms of atrophic vaginitis include vaginal dry...

Ovulation pain (mittelschmerz) or midcycle spotting

Mittelschmerz is a German word that translates as "middle pain." It refers to the normal discomfort sometimes felt by women during ovulation, which is at the midpoint of the menstrual cycle.

Each month, one of the two ovaries forms a follicle that holds an egg cell. The pain occurs when the follicle ruptures and releases the egg.

This is a dull, cramping sensation that may begin suddenly in only one side of the lower abdomen. In a few cases, there may be vaginal spotting. Mittelschmerz occurs about 14 days before the start of the next menstrual period.

Actual Mittelschmerz is not associated with nausea, vomiting, fever, or severe pelvic pain. These symptoms should be evaluated by a medical provider since they can indicate a more serious condition.

Diagnosis is made through patient history.

Treatment requires only over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve the pain. An oral contraceptive will stop the symptoms, since it also stops ovulation.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), last period approximately 2 weeks ago, vaginal bleeding, bloody vaginal discharge, pelvis pain

Symptoms that always occur with ovulation pain (mittelschmerz) or midcycle spotting: last period approximately 2 weeks ago

Urgency: Self-treatment

Vaginal Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your vaginal discharge

Normal case of vaginal discharge

It is perfectly normal for every woman to have a clear or thin white vaginal discharge which is more or less constant.

The body protects the vaginal tissues by producing this light mucus from glands in the cervix and in the vaginal walls. This keeps the tissues lubricated so that they do not dry out and become irritated, and keeps the tissues slightly acidic because that helps to kill off any harmful germs.

The discharge is also a cleaning mechanism, clearing away any dead cells or bacteria as it moves out of the vagina. Douching is not necessary for normal discharge.

Vaginal discharge may change at different stages of life. During pregnancy, it becomes white and milky in appearance.

During and after menopause, the discharge lessens due to the drop in estrogen levels. If the dryness causes irritation or difficulty with sexual activity, a gynecologist can recommend an appropriate remedy.

Normal vaginal discharge never causes itching or has a foul smell, and is never any color other than clear or white.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: vaginal discharge, mild vaginal discharge, white/gray vaginal discharge, clear vaginal discharge, severe vaginal discharge

Symptoms that always occur with normal case of vaginal discharge: vaginal discharge

Symptoms that never occur with normal case of vaginal discharge: vaginal itch or burning, painful urination, severe vaginal discharge, vaginal pain, abdominal pain (stomach ache), bleeding after sex, missed period, vulvovaginal odor

Urgency: Wait and watch

Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, is the general term for a bacterial infection of a woman's reproductive organs.

PID is most often a complication of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. However, it is possible to get PID from other causes.

Any woman can be affected. It is most often found in sexually active women under age 25, especially those who have had PID before, have multiple partners, and/or douche frequently.

Symptoms include fever, lower abdominal pain, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, pain and/or bleeding during sex, and pain on urination.

Untreated PID can cause infertility due to damaged tissue in the reproductive tract, as well as chronic pelvic and abdominal pain. Unprotected sex partners will be infected as well.

Diagnosis is made through symptoms, pelvic examination, vaginal and cervical swabs, and urine tests.

Treatment is with a course of antibiotics. Be sure to finish all of the medication as directed, even when you begin feeling better.

To prevent PID, have all partners (male or female) tested for STDs and avoid unprotected sexual contact.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fever, abdominal pain or unusual vaginal discharge, vaginal discharge, nausea or vomiting, vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain

Symptoms that always occur with pelvic inflammatory disease: fever, abdominal pain or unusual vaginal discharge

Urgency: In-person visit

Chlamydia infection

Chlamydia trachomatis is a type of bacteria best known for causing the sexually transmitted infection known simply as chlamydia. It is among the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with more than a million cases reported each year in the U.S. alone.

However, the sy...

Gonococcal cervicitis

Gonococcal cervicitis is an inflammation of the cervix – the passageway at the lower end of the uterus – caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, or gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and spreads through unprotected sexual contact.

Symptoms include abnormal vaginal discharge, pain or discomfort during sex, and vaginal bleeding after sex. However, some women have few or no symptoms.

If not treated, gonococcal cervicitis can lead to further infection of the reproductive tract and to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause sterility.

Diagnosis is made after a cervical swab is taken and tested.

Treatment is through a course of oral antibiotics. Women diagnosed with gonococcal cervicitis should be further tested for other common STDs such as chlamydia and trichomoniasis, as they are often found at the same time.

The best prevention for gonorrhea is the use of a condom during sex, as well as testing of all sex partners so that they can be treated and not re-infect anyone.

Cervicitis in general can be prevented by not exposing the cervix to douching or other irritants.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding, painful sex, yellow pus vaginal discharge, heavy menstrual flow

Symptoms that never occur with gonococcal cervicitis: improving vaginal discharge

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Vaginal trichomonas infection

Trichomonas vaginalis infection (or "Trichomoniasis" or "trich") is a common sexually transmitted disease caused by a parasite of the same name. It affects over 3 million people per year, but only about 30% have any symptoms.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: vaginal discharge, vulvovaginal odor, vaginal itch or burning, vaginal bleeding, white/gray vaginal discharge

Symptoms that always occur with vaginal trichomonas infection: vaginal discharge

Symptoms that never occur with vaginal trichomonas infection: vaginal ulcer

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Vaginal Discharge Treatments and Relief

Most cases of worrisome vaginal discharge have to be treated by a doctor, so some simple preventive steps can save a lot of hassle.

Prevention

  • Gentle cleaning: If you feel the need to clean the vagina, use warm water and a very mild soap. Avoid chemical douches, perfumed soaps, bubble baths and vaginal sprays as these can actually cause infections and irritation [5].
  • Wipe front to back: After using the bathroom, wipe away from the vagina to avoid contaminating it with bacteria or stool.
  • Change out of wet clothes: Don't wear that bathing suit or sweaty gym outfit for too long.
  • Wear loose fitting clothing: Tight pants and underwear can increase irritation and risk for infection.
  • Change tampons and pads frequently: During your period, keep extra supplies on hand.

A visit to the doctor for an examination and testing is the best way to determine the cause of concerning discharge. In most cases, medication can resolve the problem quickly.

Medications

Some medications that may relieve symptoms of abnormal vaginal discharge may include the following.

  • Antifungal: Over-the-counter medications like Monistat and prescription versions like fluconazole are the best treatment for yeast infections.
  • Antibiotics: Most other infections can be treated by a course of antibiotics selected by your doctor depending on the cause.
  • Anti-itch cream: Over-the-counter remedies like Vagasil treat bothersome treatments like itching and irritation but do not usually treat the underlying cause.

When vaginal discharge is an emergency

It's important to visit the doctor without delay if you have:

FAQs About Vaginal Discharge

Here are some frequently asked questions about vaginal discharge.

Is vaginal discharge normal?

Some vaginal discharge is normal, but the amount and quality varies from person to person. In general, normal vaginal discharge can be white, clear, or thick, and the quantity of your discharge may vary over time. Certain types of vaginal discharge are never normal, however. Acute changes in the amount, color, or smell of discharge or discharge that is foul-smelling, bloody, yellow-green, or foamy is not normal, especially in the presence of other vaginal symptoms such as pain or itching [1].

What causes white discharge?

White discharge is normal in some women; however, it can also be indicative of a fungal (yeast) infection of the vagina. These infections are normally characterized by a change in discharge to a thick, white, sticky discharge, described by some as cottage cheese-like. This change in discharge is often accompanied by itching and pain [3].

What causes a lot of discharge?

The amount of vaginal discharge can increase slightly with pregnancy, birth control medications, or during the two weeks prior to your period. It can also change with diet, stress, sexual activity, and certain medications. However, certain infections may also lead to increased discharge, especially if there is a change in the smell of the discharge or vaginal symptoms like itching or pain.

What causes smelly discharge?

Smelly discharge is never a normal symptom. Most frequently, foul-smelling discharge is caused by an abnormal change in vaginal flora, called Bacterial Vaginosis, or an infection of the vagina. Bacterial Vaginosis occurs when the bacteria that normally reside in the vagina are replaced by an alternate species. This is characterized by foul-smelling, off-white or gray discharge, generally without any pain or itching. Infection of the vagina with bacterial species such as Trichomonas can lead to thin, foul-smelling, yellow-green frothy discharge.

What does brown vaginal discharge mean?

Brown vaginal discharge generally occurs with small amounts of blood mixed with the normal discharge fluid. This is sometimes called spotting. Many causes may contribute to brown vaginal discharge. It can be normal around the time of your menstrual cycle or after sex. It may also be caused by infections or lesions of the female reproductive tract. Typically, brown vaginal discharge is a transient occurrence. If it persists or is associated with pain or other vaginal symptoms, you should seek evaluation from a healthcare provider.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Vaginal Discharge

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Are you sexually active?
  • What color is the discharge?
  • Do you feel pain when you urinate?
  • When was your last menstrual period?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your vaginal discharge

Vaginal Discharge Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced vaginal discharge have also experienced:

  • 16% Vaginal Itch Or Burning
  • 10% Foul-Smelling Vaginal Odor
  • 9% Bloody Vaginal Discharge

People who have experienced vaginal discharge were most often matched with:

  • 60% Bacterial Vaginosis
  • 20% Yeast Infection
  • 20% Symptoms Of Menopause

People who have experienced vaginal discharge had symptoms persist for:

  • 39% Less than a week
  • 26% Less than a day
  • 18% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Vaginal Discharge Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your vaginal discharge

References

  1. Sobel JD. Patient Education: Vaginal Discharge in Adult Women (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Updated March 30, 2018. UpToDate Link.
  2. Trichomoniasis - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated July 14, 2017. CDC Link.
  3. Vaginal Yeast Infections (Candidiasis). Center for Young Women's Health. Updated September 19, 2017. Center for Young Women's Health Link.
  4. Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer. American Cancer Society. Updated December 5, 2016. American Cancer Society Link.
  5. Sexual Health: Keeping Your Vagina Clean and Healthy. NHS. Updated October 18, 2018. NHS Link.

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.