Vaginal Discharge: What’s happening down there?

May 12, 2022

When vaginal discharge occurs, many women assume something must be wrong. And a quick search of social media or the internet results in a bevy of questionable rinses, creams, and DIY treatments all claiming to help. But the truth is, the presence of vaginal discharge does not always mean something is wrong, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of normal vaginal discharge, and when to see a doctor.

Vaginal discharge…what is it?

Vaginal discharge is a combination of cells and fluid that is constantly produced in and shed through the vagina. Normal discharge is a good thing and a sign of a healthy vagina. Vaginal discharge keeps vaginal tissue lubricated and protects against irritation and infection.

What is “normal” discharge?

“The appearance and quantity of discharge can vary according to the stage of a woman’s menstrual cycle and from one woman to the next,” said Texas MedClinic Chief Operating Officer and practicing physician Dr. David Gude. “Color and consistency can change too, from cloudy and thick to clear and watery.”

When is discharge cause for concern?

If you notice a change in the color or quantity of your vaginal discharge, you may have an infection. Most women will experience a vaginal infection during their lifetime, and many of these infections, while uncomfortable, are relatively harmless. Changes in vaginal discharge can be caused by either a bacterial or yeast infection, but it can also be a sign of something more serious.

Yeast Infections

Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus, or yeast, called Candida. While Candida can be found in areas of the body like the mouth, throat, gut, and vagina, it can sometimes multiply and cause infection, or vaginal candidiasis, if the vaginal environment changes. These changes can happen due to pregnancy, the use of hormonal contraceptives, a weakened immune system, or taking a course of antibiotics.

Symptoms of a yeast infection can include:

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Discomfort while urinating
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal tenderness or itching

Your doctor can perform a fungal culture to determine whether you have a yeast infection and can prescribe antifungal medication that is taken by mouth or applied directly to the vagina.

Bacterial Vaginosis

Sometimes the normal levels of bacteria found in the vagina become imbalanced, causing a condition called bacterial vaginosis. Risk factors for developing bacterial vaginosis include douching, having sex without using a condom, and having multiple sex partners.

Women with bacterial vaginosis often experience no symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, you may notice:

  • Vaginal discharge that is thin and white or gray in color
  • A strong fishy odor, especially after having sex
  • A burning sensation when urinating
  • Discomfort, itching, or a burning sensation inside the vagina
  • Itching on the outside of the vagina

Your doctor can test a sample of your vaginal fluid to find out if you have bacterial vaginosis and will prescribe antibiotics. If left untreated, bacterial vaginosis increases a woman’s risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI’s).

Vaginal discharge and STI’s

STI’s affect one in every five Americans. While the following STI’s can cause changes in vaginal discharge, it is important to note that you can have an STI and show no outward symptoms. That’s why it is important to get tested regularly for STI’s and to use condoms if you are sexually active and/or have sex with multiple partners.

If you are sexually active, you can lower your risk of contracting these and other STI’s by:

  • Using latex condoms correctly every time you have sex
  • Engaging in a monogamous sexual relationship with a partner who has tested negative for sexually transmitted diseases.

When it comes to vaginal discharge, it is important to know what is normal for you. If you experience a change in your normal discharge that lasts for more than 2 weeks, it is time to seek medical care. Your primary care physician will evaluate your symptoms and help you determine the next steps needed to keep you well.

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