Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal Discharge

Let’s be real. We’ve all had that moment when we’ve pulled down our pants in the bathroom, seen a different color than usual, and asked, “Is that normal?”

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Healthy discharge keeps the vagina clean, wards off infections, and provides lubrication. You may notice your discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle and over the years. The production of vaginal discharge can vary from woman to woman, and can change in consistency and appearance depending on many factors.

These factors include:

  • menstrual cycle
  • hormones
  • pregnancy
  • infections

Most of the time, vaginal discharge is not something you should worry about, however, if you notice your vaginal discharge has changed from its typical consistency, color, and smell, or if you have other symptoms in your vaginal area such as vaginal itching, swelling, burning, or pain, this may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Vaginal Discharge — What’s Normal and What Isn’t

What’s Considered Normal?
A vaginal discharge can result from normal changes in estrogen levels. When levels are high, estrogen stimulates the cervix to produce secretions (mucus), and a small amount of mucus may be discharged from the vagina. Estrogen levels are high in the following situations:

  • During menstrual cycles a few days before the egg is released
  • In newborns for a week or two after birth because they absorb estrogen from their mother before birth
  • A few months before girls have their first menstrual period
  • During pregnancy
  • In women who take drugs that contain estrogen or that increase estrogen production (such as some fertility drugs)

Typically, a normal discharge has no odor. It is usually milky white or thin and clear. During the childbearing years, the amount and appearance may vary during the menstrual cycle. For example, in the middle of the cycle when the egg is released (at ovulation), the cervix produces more mucus, and the mucus is thinner.

Pregnancy, use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives), and sexual arousal also affect the amount and appearance of the discharge. After menopause, estrogen levels decrease, often reducing the amount of normal discharge.

After menopause, estrogen levels decrease, often reducing the amount of normal discharge.

What’s Considered Abnormal?
A vaginal discharge is considered abnormal if it is:

  • Heavier than usual
  • Thicker than usual
  • White and clumpy (like cottage cheese)
  • Grayish, greenish, yellowish, or blood-tinged
  • Foul- or fishy-smelling
  • Accompanied by itching, burning, a rash, or soreness

Abnormal vaginal discharge can cause irritation or itching, a foul smell or copious amounts of fluid that necessitates panty liners or pads, so it doesn’t leak through your underwear. A green tinge to your discharge or unusual bleeding may also be causes for concern.

“An abnormal vaginal discharge is usually caused by vaginitis, which most often results from irritation by a chemical or from an infection.”

Signs of Abnormal Discharge:

It's important to recognize the signs of abnormal vaginal discharge because it could be a sign of infection or other health condition. You may also experience other symptoms with a change in discharge colour, such as irritation, itchiness or burning in or around your vagina. The combination of these factors can help reveal what may be going on in your body. Let’s take a look at the types of discharge, what it might signal, other related symptoms, and what you can do:

What Causes Abnormal Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal infections are usually prevented by the protective bacteria (lactobacilli) that normally live in the vagina. These bacteria keep the acidity of the vagina in the normal range. When acidity in the vagina decreases, the number of protective bacteria decreases, and the number of harmful bacteria increases.
The following make the growth of harmful bacteria more likely (and thus increase the risk of vaginal infections):

Infections:
Below are some of the most common infections which may cause abnormal vaginal discharge:

Bacterial vaginosis (BV):
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection of the vagina. It results from a change in the normal balance of vaginal bacteria.

BV usually doesn't cause any other health problems. But it can lead to issues, especially when you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant. This infection can produce a “fishy” smell and an increased discharge that may be grayish. It’s not considered a sexually transmitted infection, but it is most common in sexually active women.

“Bacterial Vaginosis is an extremely common condition that is due to a change in the normal microbiome of the vagina and results as an overgrowth of “bad” or harmful bacteria.”

Bacterial vaginosis can be a recurrent problem for some women, especially occurring after intercourse or periods. Fortunately, there are very effective treatments for BV such as vaginal pH regulators.

Yeast Infection:
Three out of four adult women will get at least one yeast infection during their lifetime. This occurs when too much yeast grows in the vagina.
A yeast infection typically happens when the balance in the vagina changes. This can be caused by pregnancy, diabetes, use of some medicines, lubricants, or spermicides, or a weakened immune system. Occasionally, the infection can be passed from person to person during sex.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs):
Sexually transmitted infections, such as trichomoniasis, chlamydia or gonorrhea, may be mistaken for a yeast infection. Practice safe sex and see your physician if you think you might have been exposed. These infections are easily treated with antibiotics but leaving them untreated may lead to more serious conditions.

“If you are sexually active and/or have multiple partners, you should get tested for STIs at least once a year or when you feel you have been exposed.”

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease:
Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, is an infection of the organs of a women’s reproductive system. They include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and cervix. It’s usually caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI), like chlamydia or gonorrhea, and is treated with antibiotics.

You might not notice any symptoms of PID early on. But as the infection gets worse, you can have:

  • Pain in your lower belly and pelvis
  • Heavy discharge from your vagina with an unpleasant odor
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pain during sex
  • Fever and chills
  • Pain when you urinate or a hard time going

Call your doctor right away if you have any of the above symptoms.

Abnormal discharge may also cause by irritation of the delicate vaginal tissue. Below are some common sources of irritation:

Douching:
Douching is cleaning the inside of the vagina with water or other products. Douching is not necessary for a woman and may actually cause infection. It can interfere with the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina and is not recommended by doctors. Douching has been linked to infections, STDs, and even fertility problems.

Menopause:
After menopause, many women have an abnormal discharge. It occurs because the decrease in estrogen levels causes the vagina to thin and become drier. Moderate to severe thinning and drying is called atrophic vaginitis. A thin, dry vagina is more likely to become irritated and inflamed, resulting in a discharge.

Foreign objects:
A foreign object, such as a piece of toilet paper, sexual toy, or forgotten tampon in the vagina can irritate the delicate lining of the vagina and cause abnormal vaginal discharge. An infection may also occur when hygiene is poor. For example, young girls, especially those 2 to 6 years old, may transfer bacteria from the digestive tract to the genital area when they wipe from back to front or do not wash their hands after bowel movements. In older women, urine or stool may irritate the area around the genitals and anus, resulting in a vaginal discharge. Such irritation may occur when women are incontinent (involuntarily pass stool or urine) or bedbound. If a foreign object is the cause, the discharge may contain small amounts of blood.

Feminine Hygiene Products:
Various products that come in contact with the genital area can irritate it, sometimes causing a discharge. Such products include hygiene sprays, perfumes, menstrual pads, laundry soaps, bleaches, fabric softeners, and sometimes spermicides, vaginal creams or lubricants, vaginal contraceptive rings, diaphragms, and, for women who are allergic to latex, latex condoms.

Other causes of abnormal vaginal discharge included the following:

Use of antibiotics: Antibiotics kill bacteria, which can upset the delicate balance of yeast and bacteria in the vagina

Menstrual Cycle: Menstrual blood or semen in the vagina can reduce the acidity of the vagina and upset the delicate balance of yeast and bacterial in the vagina.

Pregnancy: Pregnant women will secrete sticky, white, or pale-yellow mucus early on in the first trimester and throughout their pregnancy. Increased hormones and vaginal blood flow cause the discharge.

Diabetes mellitus: Vaginal thrush (vulvovaginal candidiasis) can be a symptom of diabetes as high blood sugar levels can cause glucose to be excreted via the urine. Glucose in the urine can create a fertile breeding ground for yeast infections.

Top things to know:

  • Vaginal discharge is common and will vary throughout your menstrual cycle.
  • Vaginal discharge is one way of telling what phase of your menstrual cycle you’re in.
  • Unusual or atypical vaginal discharge differs in color, consistency, smell, or quantity compared to your usual discharge.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge may be a symptom of a bacterial imbalance, an infection or a sexually transmitted infection, or in rare cases, cervical cancer.
  • To keep your vagina healthy, avoid douching and use protection during sexual activity.

When to See a Doctor

The volume of normal vaginal discharge varies in each person. Because of this, you have to compare for yourself and look at what your normal amounts of vaginal discharge are before, during and after your menstrual cycle. If there is a noticeable change in any of these from what you usually experience, then you should first suspect that it is abnormal discharge.

The texture or consistency—if this changes, you should see a doctor. Normal vaginal discharge is usually a clear or opaque mucus-like liquid, depending on the time of the month and your menstrual cycle. During the time before and after your period, it may be slightly thicker than normal. If, however, it has a noticeably thicker than normal consistency, possibly with a texture similar to wet powder or a milk paste, this could be a sign that it is caused by a fungal infection.

Normal vaginal discharge is thin, clear, or milky white, and mild smelling. If your discharge turns grey or white accompanied by a strong smell, it may be a sign that you have bacterial vaginosis (BV) and a pH imbalance. The only real solution is to restore and maintain your body’s delicate balance. Sometimes your body can do this on its own, but when it needs a little help, there’s GYNALAC.

Bacterial Vaginosis: Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginal infections and results from an imbalance in the natural flora of your vagina and a change in its pH.
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Types of Vaginal Odor: Click to learn more about the different types of vaginal odor.
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Importance of pH: A healthy vaginal pH is usually between 3.8 and 4.5. Click to learn more about why pH of the vagina is so important.
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Vaginal Health: Click to learn more about vaginal health.
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Antibiotic Resistance: The growing concern over the risk of antibiotic resistance is the primary reasons most healthcare practitioners are now turning towards non-antibiotic approaches to prevent recurrent infections.
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Pregnancy: Bacterial Vaginosis is found in about 25% of pregnant women. Click to learn more about potential risks to your pregnancy.
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UTI or Vaginal Infection? UTI or Vaginal Infection? If you experience discomfort in your genital area or when you urinate, you may have an infection. Click here to learn more about difference between a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and Vaginal Infection.
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