Vaginal discharge is a fluid which comes out of the vagina. Some discharge is very normal and healthy, but changes in the character of the discharge can indicate that a woman is experiencing a health problem. Learning to recognize the difference between normal and abnormal discharges is important, as the sooner women receive treatment for a medical problem, the better the prognosis will be.
Glands which line the vagina regularly produce a fluid which is designed to carry away dead cells, lubricate the vagina, and prevent infection. This fluid tends to be clear to milky in color, and it can vary from being very thin and watery to thicker and more elastic in texture. The menstrual cycle has a major effect on vaginal discharge, with women producing more of this fluid when they are ovulating, and the amount can also vary in response to stress, age, and other factors.
If the discharge acquires a strange color or a bad smell, it is a sign the normal balance of vaginal fauna has been disrupted. Green, yellow, and brownish discharges are generally a sign of ill health, as are strong smelling discharges, or discharges which clump with a classic cottage cheese-like appearance. If a strange discharge is accompanied by itching or burning around the vaginal area, it usually means that a woman has an infection.
One of the common causes for an abnormal vaginal discharge is a yeast infection, caused by colonization with candida yeast. Women can also develop bacterial vaginosis, an infection associated with bacterial colonization in the vagina. Both of these conditions can happen to women of all ages, including women who are not sexually active, and some women appear to be more prone than others.
Sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis can also cause abnormal vaginal discharges. In these cases, the woman will need to notify sex partners about the diagnosis so that they can be tested and receive treatment, if necessary. Women who feel awkward about discussing such issues can take advantage of anonymous notification services offered by many public health departments to notify their partners without revealing their identity.
Many women grow accustomed to their normal cycle of vaginal discharges over time. If a change is noted, an appointment should be made with a doctor to address the issue. This will prevent the spread of infection if an STI is causing the abnormal discharge, and it will also ensure that a woman gets treatment quickly so that she does not have to endure discomfort any longer than necessary.