Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Apr 25, 2023.
Vaginal discharge, also called leukorrhea, is made up of both fluid and cells. Your vagina sheds discharge throughout the day.
Typical discharge helps keep the vagina healthy and clean. By keeping the tissues wet, it protects against infection and irritation. Vaginal discharge might seem different at times. It could be whitish and sticky or clear and watery. These changes usually depend on where you are in your period cycle. It's common for the amount, color and consistency all to change.
Sometimes though, vaginal discharge can be a symptom that something's wrong. You might have discharge that smells bad or looks strange to you. Or you might feel itching or pain. If so, contact your health care provider to see if you might need to have the discharge checked.
Yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and menopause all can change vaginal discharge. These conditions can make you uncomfortable, but there are treatments that can help.
Sometimes, differences in your discharge can be a symptom of something more serious. Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause changes to vaginal discharge. STIs can be a danger to your body's health and to others. So knowing if you have an STI is important.
Brownish or blood-tinged discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer. But this is rare.
Causes related to infection or inflammation
Possible causes of unusual vaginal discharge linked to infections or inflammation include:
- Bacterial vaginosis (irritation of the vagina)
- Chlamydia trachomatis
- Forgotten, also called retained, tampon
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Yeast infection (vaginal)
Other causes of unusual vaginal discharge include:
- Certain hygiene practices, such as douching or using scented sprays or soaps
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal atrophy , also called genitourinary syndrome of menopause
- Vaginal cancer
- Vaginal fistula
It's rare for changes to vaginal discharge to be a sign of cancer.
When to see a doctor
Schedule a visit with your health care provider if you have:
- Greenish, yellowish, thick or cheesy vaginal discharge.
- Strong vaginal odor.
- Itching, burning or irritation of your vagina or of the area of skin that surrounds the vagina and urethra, also called the vulva. You might notice a change in color to these tissues. They may be a shade of red, purple or brown depending on your skin color.
- Bleeding or spotting outside of your period.
For self-care at home:
- If you think you have a yeast infection, try an over-the-counter antifungal cream (Monistat, M-Zole, Mycelex). But it's better to be sure before you self-treat. Often people think they have a yeast infection when they actually have something else. If you're not sure, it's important to seek care first.
- Wash the vulva with warm water only. Do not wash inside the vagina. Then, gently blot dry with a cotton towel. Don't use scented soaps, toilet paper, tampons or douches. These can make discomfort and discharge worse.
- Wear cotton underwear and loose clothing. Avoid tight-fitting pants or pantyhose without a cotton crotch.
- If your vagina is dry, try an over-the-counter cream or gel to add moisture.
- See your care provider if your symptoms don't go away. You might need to try a different kind of treatment.