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What is Vaginal Discharge?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lighth0se33 — On Aug 08, 2012

A few years ago, I had a vaginal discharge with odor that was extreme. It smelled a lot like tuna, and I was afraid that people around me might be able to smell it, too.

I had vaginal itching and burning, as well. I had even experienced a couple of painful cramps down there, and I decided that I needed to see my doctor.

I figured she would say that I had a yeast infection, but instead, she told me I had bacterial vaginosis. She gave me some medicine and the problem cleared up in no time.

By wavy58 — On Aug 07, 2012

Though it's usually clear, I have had brown vaginal discharge between periods before. It scared me at first, because I knew that the time for my period was still two weeks away.

I had heard that brown discharge can indicate pregnancy, but that turned out not to be the case with me. I just had light spotting for one day, and then it went away.

I still don't know what caused it. I'm guessing it wasn't anything bad, because I never felt sick.

By Kristee — On Aug 07, 2012

@healthy4life – It sounds like you have a yeast infection. I used to get those all the time, and I always had extreme vaginal itching and lumpy discharge.

There are over-the-counter medications that come with an applicator so that you can insert them, so you can try these. They never worked well for me, but I have several friends who have had success with them.

In the future, you can prevent yeast infections by eating a serving or two of yogurt every day. The live cultures in yogurt fight off the yeast.

By healthy4life — On Aug 06, 2012

I have been having a clumpy white vaginal discharge lately. Also, the area has begun to itch a lot.

I have an appointment for my yearly exam in a month, and I was hoping to wait until then to go to the doctor. However, the itching recently got worse, and I feel itchy up inside where I can't scratch.

Does anyone know what could be wrong with me? Is there anything I can do to treat it before I see the doctor?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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