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Vaginal Discharge: At a Glance

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

Vaginal Discharge : Normal or Abnormal?

A normal discharge from the vagina can result from normal changes in estrogen levels. For example, a normal discharge may occur during pregnancy or during the menstrual cycle a few days before the egg is released. Birth control pills and sexual arousal can affect the amount and appearance of a discharge.

Typically, a normal discharge has no odor and is milky white or thin and clear.

Internal Female Genital Organs

What Causes an Abnormal Discharge?

  • Chemicals that irritate the genital area, such as those in hygiene products, bubble bath, laundry detergents, or contraceptive foams and jellies

  • Certain infections, such as bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections (candidiasis)

  • Certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as trichomoniasis, chlamydial infection, and gonorrhea

  • A foreign object (such as a forgotten tampon) in the vagina

  • Poor hygiene

  • Cancer (rarely)

What Makes a Vaginal Discharge Abnormal?

  • Heavier than usual

  • Thicker than usual

  • Puslike

  • Frothy

  • White and clumpy (like cottage cheese)

  • Grayish, greenish, yellowish, or blood-tinged

  • Foul- or fishy-smelling

  • Accompanied by itching, burning, a rash, or soreness

Warning signs for women with an abnormal discharge

In women with an abnormal discharge, the following are cause for concern:

  • In girls, a fever or a yellow or green discharge with a fishy odor
  • Severe abdominal or pelvic pain or pain that lasts more than 2 hours
  • Drainage of pus, a fever, or other signs of infection in the reproductive organs
  • Stool in the vaginal discharge
  • A bloody discharge after menopause

Women or girls with warning signs should see a doctor within a day unless the only warning sign is stool or blood in the discharge. Then, a delay of several days is not likely to be harmful.

For a full discussion, see Vaginal Discharge and Overview of Vaginal Infections.

What the Doctor Does

Doctors typically do a pelvic examination. They use an instrument called a speculum to spread the walls of the vagina apart. They then examine the vagina and the cervix (the lower part of the uterus). The photos below show what they might see if certain infections were causing the vaginal discharge.

Treating a Vaginal Discharge

The underlying condition is corrected or treated if possible. For example, bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotics.

To help relieve symptoms

  • Keep the genital area as clean as possible.
  • Wash the area every day without soap, and dry thoroughly.
  • If soap is necessary, use a mild, nonallergenic soap, and rinse and dry thoroughly.
  • Change underwear once a day.
  • For soreness and itching, place ice packs on the genital area, sit in a warm sitz bath, or flush the area with lukewarm water squeezed from a water bottle.
  • Use good hygiene (wipe from front to back, wash hands after bowel movements and urinating, and do not finger the genital area).
  • Do not use any products that consistently irritate the area.
  • Do not use feminine hygiene sprays, and do not douche.

Did You Know...

  • Douching can often remove normal, protective bacteria from the vagina, increasing the risk of infection.

If symptoms are moderate or severe and general measures do not help, drugs (such as a corticosteroid cream) may be needed.

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