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Normal vaginal discharge has several purposes such as cleaning and moistening the vagina and helping to prevent and fight infections.

It is perfectly normal for the color, texture, and amount of vaginal fluids to vary throughout the menstrual cycle. However, some changes in discharge may indicate a problem. That is why each woman should know the difference between normal discharge and infection. If you think you may have a problem, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Difference between normal discharge and infection

Normal vaginal fluids can vary somewhat in texture and color; it can be thin, sticky and elastic, or thick and gooey.

Vaginal fluids should be clear, white, or off-white in color to be considered normal discharge. Normal vaginal discharge looks yellowish when it dries. Normal vaginal discharge has a mild scent or no scent at all. [1]

It is important to keep an eye out for changes in vaginal fluids that may indicate a problem.

You should watch for changes in odor, especially an unpleasant odor. You should also be mindful of changes in color or texture, especially with greenish or grayish vaginal discharge, or anything looking like pus. It is also important to notice vaginal itching, burning, swelling, or redness, as well as a change in color caused by vaginal bleeding or spotting that is not a menstrual period.

Vaginal infections, such as bacterial vaginosis, candidiasis (vaginal yeast infection), and trichomoniasis, are common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge.

Some infections, such as gonorrhea, trichomoniasis or chlamydia are transmitted by sexual intercourse. Others can occur with or without having sex, such as bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection, both of which are common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge. Although the symptoms of these infections can be very similar, there are some differences you should be aware of.

Yeast infections may cause the discharge to become very white and thick, somewhat resembling cottage cheese. A yeast infection usually does not cause a strong odor, but it may cause severe itching and burning in some women. [2]

Bacterial vaginosis or BV may cause vaginal discharge to be heavier than usual. The fluids may become foamy or frothy and grayish in color; it often causes vaginal fluids to have an unpleasant, fishy odor. [3]

Trichomoniasis is a common sexually transmitted disease that may cause a musty, stale odor. Discharge may become grayish or yellow-green and may become thicker associated with vaginal itching and pain during urination. [4]

It is very important to see a doctor or go to your campus health center if you have noticed any of the aforementioned symptoms of abnormal vaginal discharge.

This is particularly important for women who have had sex, especially without using a condom. Many STDs cause changes in vaginal discharge or cause other infections that can affect discharge and even cause long term complications such as infertility, so it is important to act promptly.

How to prevent abnormal vaginal discharge

It is important to wear white cotton panties all the time. Cotton allows your genital area to breathe, helping the vaginal area to stay dry. It is also a good idea to wear panties only during the day and not at night while sleeping.

Do not use vaginal douches [5] and never use petroleum jelly or oils for vaginal lubrication [6], because this can create a breeding ground for bacteria to grow.

If you are being treated for a vaginal infection, use all the medication as directed even if you think you are better equipped to prevent another vaginal infection. Do not have sexual intercourse during treatment for a vaginal infection and until you have no more symptoms, because you could slow down the healing process.

Avoid vaginal contact with products that can irritate the vagina. These include feminine hygiene products, perfumed or deodorant soaps, powders, lotions, and bubble baths. It would be prudent to avoid prolonged wearing of tight-fitting clothing, such as bathing suits, exercise wear, pantyhose, or slacks. [5,6]

Vaginal infections often cause intense itching but do not scratch it. Itching infected, inflamed areas will only make things worse than they should be.

If your period starts while you are using vaginal creams or suppositories, continue your regular medication schedule during your period. Also, do not use tampons but use pads instead.

If you are self-treating a vaginal infection and your symptoms are not improved after treatment, you should see your healthcare provider.

You must know you should always wipe from front to back after urination or bowel movement. Improper wiping easily spreads bacteria to the vagina and may lead to vaginal discharge and infection as a consequence one could easily avoid.

Of course, good basic hygiene, plenty of sleep, and well-rounded nutrition with an appropriate fluid intake are always a good idea for vaginal health. The same applies to your overall health and well-being.

What is abnormal vaginal discharge?

Discharge from the vagina is a condition when substances are emitted from the vagina. It can vary in consistency from thick, pasty, and thin. It can vary in color as clear or cloudy, and it could smell normal, bad, or odorless. Having some amount of vaginal discharge is perfectly normal, especially if the woman is of childbearing age. Glands in the cervix normally produce clear mucus. These secretions may turn white or yellow when exposed to the air, and these are normal variations. Actually, the amount of mucus produced by the cervical glands varies throughout the menstrual cycle. This is normal and depends on the amount of estrogen circulating in woman’s body. [1]

Vaginal discharge that suddenly differs in color, odor, consistency, or amount may indicate an underlying problem, such as a vaginal infection. If an abnormal vaginal discharge is due to a sexually transmitted disease, your sexual partner will likely require treatment as well.

Causes of abnormal vaginal discharge

Situations such as sexual excitement, emotional stress, ovulation and later the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle can increase or decrease the amount of normal vaginal discharge.

Some conditions can lead to abnormal vaginal discharge, such as a vaginal yeast infection – which is technically not an infection, because yeasts normally live in the vagina. A problem occurs when these overgrow, causing a cheesy white discharge with redness and itching. Vaginal yeast infections may be related to antibiotics, birth control or other estrogen pills, pregnancy, diabetes, or a weakened immune system depends from women to women. [2]

You should know when it is important to call your doctor. You should call your healthcare provider right away if your discharge is associated with fever or pain in your pelvis or abdomen.

If you have been exposed to a sexual partner with gonorrhea, Chlamydia, or other sexually transmitted diseases, you must consult your doctor as well.

If you have noticed increased thirst or appetite, unexplained weight loss, increased urinary frequency, or fatigue call your doctor as well, because these symptoms may be signs of diabetes.

The doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical examination including a pelvic exam. To get medical history your doctor may ask you when the changed or abnormal vaginal discharge began. Your doctor should also know if you have the same amount and type of vaginal discharge throughout the month, what the discharge looks like, whether there is an odor and whether you have pain, itching, or burning. Your healthcare provider may then perform diagnostic tests such as cultures of your cervix, examination of vaginal discharge under the microscope and a Pap smear test.

Treatment of abnormal vaginal discharge

The treatment for abnormal vaginal discharge depends on the underlying condition. Suppositories or creams may be ordered and antibiotics may be prescribed, as well as oral medication for a fungus or medication for Trichomonas. However, oral antibiotics are commonly used only in difficult cases.

Your sexual partner or partners may also need treatment depending on the cause.

For you, it is the most important to recognize when your normal vaginal discharge had changed. Normal vaginal discharge may be clear or white, thin or thick, it is not odorous and there is no itching.

Abnormal vaginal discharge can be yellow or green, and then it is usually from an infection. A foul-smelling discharge is usually from an infection as well. A thick, white, itchy, cottage cheese-like non-odorous discharge is often caused by a yeast infection as a common cause of abnormal vaginal discharge.

The possibility of pregnancy must be considered in all women in their childbearing years when we talk about vaginal discharge. In the second half of pregnancy, increasing vaginal discharge can be a subtle sign of preterm labor for these women. That is why if there is any doubt about the possibility of pregnancy, you should use a urine pregnancy test. If you have a yeast infection causing abnormal vaginal discharge, there are a number of over the counter medications for the treatment of vaginal yeast infections. These are Femstat-3, Gyne-Lotrimin-3, Mycelex-7, and Monistat. However, if you are pregnant, speak with your doctor before using any of these.

Vaginal candidiasis is usually treated with an antifungal medicine. For most infections, the treatment is an antifungal medicine applied inside the vagina or a single dose of fluconazole taken by mouth. For more severe infections, infections that don’t get better, or keep coming back after getting better, other treatments might be needed. These treatments include more doses of fluconazole taken by mouth or other medicines applied inside the vagina such as boric acid, nystatin, or flucytosine. [7]

Also, you should not use yeast medication during the 24 hours prior to a physician appointment because it might interfere with your doctor’s examination. However, it would be best for you to talk to your doctor once you notice a change in your vaginal discharge.