Vaginal Discharge

Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD, July 21, 2017

Vaginal discharge is the result of inflammation of the mucosal tissue of the genital and urinary tracts by bacteria, yeast, or other "invaders".

Discharge from the vagina can be caused by several different types of invaders, and can range in consistency from thin and watery to thick and viscous. Discharge can be clear, white, yellow, bloody, or a range of colors in between. It can also vary in amount from barely noticeable to very pronounced. Sometimes odor will accompany discharge, other times it can be odor-free (based on which infecting organism is present).

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When is vaginal discharge "abnormal"?

The vagina naturally produces moisture to keep the tissues lubricated. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether discharge is present, or whether you're just noticing the fluid naturally produced by these tissues. To be called "abnormal", vaginal discharge typically has to be either present in larger amounts, be a different color, have an odor, or accompanied by some other symptom. However, just because you're experiencing discharge doesn't mean you necessarily have an STD. There are many different organisms that can be introduced into the genital region and cause infection that are not sexually transmitted diseases. The only way to know why you're experiencing vaginal discharge is to undergo testing, which will determine the cause and how you can treat it.

STDs and vaginal discharge

Two STDs that are frequently associated with vaginal discharge are chlamydia and gonorrhea. These two STDs are both very common among women, so it is important to be tested if you have been sexually active and are experiencing any unusual symptoms such as vaginal discharge. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause long term health problems for women who are infected, so it's important not to ignore any possible signs. In addition, a large number of women with chlamydia or gonorrhea won't experience any symptoms, so frequent testing when you're sexually active is important. Fortunately, both STDs are easily cured with antibiotics.

Trichomoniasis, BV and yeast infections

Other conditions which are associated with discharge include trichomoniasis, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis. Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a protozoan parasite, and the discharge caused by this infection is often accompanied by an unpleasant smell. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is not considered an STI, as it can occur in any woman (even those who aren't sexually active). BV is an infection caused when too many of one type of bacteria invade the vaginal area, altering the normal, healthy vaginal flora. It too can produce a discharge with an unpleasant smell. Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus called candida. The vagina naturally has a healthy balance between yeast and bacteria, but when an imbalance occurs between the two, women can experience a yeast infection. This can cause vaginal discharge, itching, and burning. Treatment varies based on the cause of the vaginal discharge, so it's important to get tested to uncover what's causing your symptoms.

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