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Vaginal discharge

Medically reviewed on January 11, 2018

Definition

Vaginal discharge is a combination of fluid and cells continuously shed through your vagina.

Normal vaginal discharge helps keep vaginal tissues healthy, provide lubrication and protect against infection and irritation. The amount, color and consistency of normal vaginal discharge varies — from whitish and sticky to clear and watery — depending on the stage of your reproductive (menstrual) cycle.

Abnormal vaginal discharge — for instance, fluid with an unusual odor or appearance or discharge that occurs along with itching or pain — may be a sign that something's wrong.

Causes

Most causes of abnormal vaginal discharge — such as yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis or menopause symptoms — are relatively harmless, but they can be uncomfortable.

Abnormal vaginal discharge can also be a symptom of certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Since these can spread to involve the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and can be passed on to sexual partners, detection and treatment of STIs is important.

Rarely, a brownish or blood-tinged vaginal discharge could be a sign of cervical cancer.

Possible causes of abnormal vaginal discharge include:

Causes related to infection or inflammation

  • Cervicitis (an inflammation of the cervix)
  • Chlamydia trachomatis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Forgotten (retained) tampon
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) — infection of the female reproductive organs
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Vaginitis (bacterial vaginosis)
  • Yeast infection (vaginal)

Other causes

  • Certain hygiene practices, such as douching or using scented sprays or soaps
  • Cervical cancer
  • Vaginal atrophy (genitourinary syndrome of menopause — GSM) 
  • Pregnancy
  • Rectovaginal fistula (an abnormal opening between the rectum and vagina that allows feces to leak into the vagina)
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vaginal fistula

Only rarely is vaginal discharge a sign of cancer.

When to see a doctor

Schedule a doctor's visit if you have:

  • Greenish, yellowish, thick or cheesy vaginal discharge
  • Strong vaginal odor
  • Redness, itching, burning or irritation of your vagina or the area of skin that surrounds the vagina and urethra (vulva)
  • Bleeding or spotting unrelated to your period

For self-care at home:

  • Try an over-the-counter antifungal cream for a suspected yeast infection.
  • Use a cold compress, such as a washcloth or ice pack, to relieve itching, swelling or discomfort of the vulva.
  • Have your partner use a condom for a week after beginning treatment, or wait a week before having sex.
  • See your doctor if your symptoms don't go away after a week or so.

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