What Is Vaginal Discharge? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy way for your body to get rid of fluid and old cells — but discharge can also be a sign of something more serious.
Signs and Symptoms of Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is a normal occurrence all women experience that usually appears as a white or clear fluid on underwear. Some women have discharge daily and others on occasion. The discharge is made up of fluid and cells that shed through the vagina.
Discharge fluid can be several things, including: (2)
Cervical mucus A clear liquid or gel-like fluid that is produced by the cervix and changes over the course of your menstrual cycle or during pregnancy
Arousal fluid?Produced from glands in and around the vagina when sexual arousal occurs. The fluid lubricates the vagina and dissipates usually within an hour of arousal.
Seminal fluid A man's sperm along with other fluids. It can appear as vaginal discharge if you had intercourse within the last day — seminal fluid can stay in the vagina for hours after intercourse.
When abnormal discharge is present, other symptoms may also be depending on what's causing the discharge. Other symptoms might include: (3)
- Pain during urination and sexual intercourse
Causes and Risk Factors of Vaginal Discharge
Normal vaginal discharge exists to keep vaginal tissues healthy, provide lubrication, and protect the vagina from infection and irritation.
If vaginal discharge increases, it can be from normal menstrual cycle changes. (4)
Pregnancy and use of birth control pills can also affect the amount and look of discharge.
Abnormal vaginal discharge that has an unusual odor, looks different from your normal discharge, or is accompanied with itching, irritation, burning, or pain may indicate that you have inflammation, infection, or a sexually transmitted disease (STD), such as the following: (1)
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Yeast infection
- Chlamydia trachomatis
- Vaginal atrophy
- Vaginal fistula
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
In elderly women, those who are bedbound or incontinent, urine or stool may irritate the area around the genitals and anus, causing vaginal discharge. (3)
Some hygiene practices can cause vaginal discharge to be abnormal, including douching, using soaps or scented sprays, or forgetting to change a tampon.
In rare cases, women may have abnormal openings between the intestine and genital tract, resulting in an abnormal discharge from the vagina. (3)
How Is Vaginal Discharge Diagnosed?
Vaginal discharge, cervical mucus, and arousal fluid are considered normal and not indicative of disease, and therefore are not typically evaluated. But if you have had a change in discharge or are experiencing symptoms such as burning, irritation, itching or pain, your doctor may look at cervical mucus to check for abnormalities that suggest a symptom from an infection or STD. Your doctor may perform the following tests: (4)
- Pelvic exam?involves your doctor examining the vagina and cervix by putting pressure on the uterus and ovaries to check for abnormalities in the tissue and organs.
- pH test?determines the acid level of the discharge, because infections can cause changes in the pH of the vagina.
- Wet mount examines a sample of discharge to look for a yeast, bacterial, or trichomonas infection.
- STD testing involves sending a sample of the discharge to a lab to test for gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomonas or other organisms that may be causing the discharge.
Duration of Vaginal Discharge
Because vaginal discharge is normal, it will always be present. If the discharge takes on an abnormal character, treatment can help eradicate the underlying cause.
Treatment and Medication Options for Vaginal Discharge
While normal vaginal discharge from cervical mucus, arousal fluid, or semen does not need treatment, discharge caused by an infection or irritation may require the following treatments.
Treating the underlying issue for vaginal discharge might include medications, such as: (3,4)
- Corticosteroid cream like hydrocortisone or oral antihistamines to relieve itching
- Antibiotic medication to treat bacteria that cause infections
- Vaginal cream containing estrogen to treat vaginitis due to menopause
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Self-care at home for vaginal discharge might include: (1,3)
- Over-the-counter antifungal cream for yeast infection
- Cold compress to relieve itching, swelling, or discomfort of the vulva
- Abstaining from sexual intercourse until irritation is gone, or having penetrative sex with a condom
- Keeping the genital area clean by washing daily without soap or with mild, nonallergenic soap, and rinsing and drying completely
- Changing underwear daily and cleaning the body daily
Complications of Vaginal Discharge
While vaginal discharge is normal, if it is accompanied by burning, itching, irritation, or pain, it's necessary to get the underlying issue treated. If left untreated, some complications can develop, including the following: (5,6)
- If trichomoniasis or bacterial vaginosis is present, there's an increased the risk of sexually transmitted infections because of inflammation.
- Having symptomatic bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis while pregnant has been linked to premature deliveries and low birth weight.
- If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
- If left untreated, chlamydia can cause ectopic pregnancy in women.
Research and Statistics: Who Gets Vaginal Discharge?
All women have normal vaginal discharge, and vaginal discharge can occur at all times of a woman's life, starting in childhood. (3)
During childhood, common causes include:
- Poor hygiene that causes infection due to bacteria from the digestive tract
- Chemicals in bubble baths or soaps
- A foreign object in the vagina
Reasons for vaginal discharge that occurs in women during other times of life are listed in the Causes and Risk Factors section above.
Related Conditions and Causes of Vaginal Discharge
The following are related to vaginal discharge: (1)
Resources We Love
Reliable vaginal health resources can be helpful for finding information and support. Many organizations provide educational materials and can help you find doctors who specialize in vaginal conditions and health. There are also online communities that offer support as well as practical advice and tips. Here are a few we recommend.
Flo is an organization dedicated to providing resources and information about women's well-being.
Planned Parenthood was founded on the notion that women should have the information and care they need to live strong, healthy lives and fulfill their dreams.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Vaginal Discharge. Mayo Clinic. February 14, 2019.
- Cervical Mucus Monitoring. UNC School of Medicine.
- Barad DH. Vaginal Discharge. Merck Manual. April 2020.
- Vaginal Discharge. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Barad DH. Genital Itching. Merck Manual. April 2020.
- Vaginitis. Mayo Clinic. February 11, 2020.