What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is a fluid that comes out of the vagina. Some types of vaginal discharge can occur naturally, including after sex.
Vaginal discharge is a fluid that comes out of the vagina. Some types of vaginal discharge can occur naturally, including after sex.

Vaginal discharge is a fluid that comes out of the vagina. Healthy vaginal discharge is typically a clear or white fluid that contains cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and cell debris. This discharge can lubricate the vagina as well as keep it clean and free of infection. 

Depending on the person, the amount and appearance of vaginal discharge can vary. The consistency and color can change throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle, for example. Vaginal discharge can also occur before, during, or after sexual intercourse. 

While some changes occur naturally, others may point toward an underlying health condition or an infection.

Signs of vaginal discharge

Some types of vaginal discharge can occur naturally, including after sex. However, certain colors, odors, or textures can be a sign of health conditions, physiological changes, or infections.

Knowing the signs of vaginal discharge — and what each type of discharge could mean — can help you better understand your bodily functions. Vaginal discharge can also be a sign of another issue, like a bacterial infection or other condition. 

Types of vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge can appear in different colors. While some colors are perfectly normal, others can signal an underlying medical condition. Vaginal discharge can be present in the following colors:

Clear discharge 

Vaginal discharge produced before, during, and after sex can be a result of arousal. Increased blood flow to the genitals can cause glands in the vagina to secrete a clear, thin fluid that lubricates during sex. Before, during, or after sex, you may notice more of this watery fluid.

Like fluids produced during arousal, ejaculation may be clear or watery in appearance. It’s unclear how many women can ejaculate, but one study found that around 10 to 54% of women expel fluids during sex or orgasm.

For the most part, clear discharge is not a cause for concern. However, if you experience a burning sensation or pain while urinating, this could be a sign of an infection. 

White discharge 

You might notice discharge that has a thicker consistency and a white, milky appearance. This kind of discharge can occur naturally due to hormonal fluctuations. Throughout your menstrual cycle, your discharge may change from clear and stretchy to thick and white.

White discharge is natural and not a cause for concern, unless it has a strong fishy odor or an unusually thick or clumpy texture like cottage cheese. These could be signs of bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection

Brown discharge

At the end of your menstrual cycle, you may see traces of blood in your vaginal discharge. This gives it a brown or reddish color. 

Spotting blood or brown discharge can occur normally during ovulation (when your ovary releases an egg, about halfway through your menstrual cycle). If you’re experiencing spotting or a brownish discharge when your period would normally start, this could be a sign that you’re pregnant

If you’re early in pregnancy and noticing brown discharge, this could also be a sign of a miscarriage

While uncommon, brown discharge in postmenopausal women can be a sign of HPV or cervical cancer.  

Yellow discharge 

Yellow discharge can be a sign of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) such as trichomoniasis {National Health Service: “Vaginal Discharge.”}. Yellow-colored discharge can also be a symptom of bacterial vaginosis or gonorrhea

Green discharge

Green discharge may be a sign of trichomoniasis

QUESTION

The vagina includes the labia, clitoris, and uterus. See Answer

Causes of vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function. You may notice changes in amount and consistency with sexual arousal, ovulation, or other lifestyle changes, like taking birth control pills or exercising frequently. 

Abnormal vaginal discharge, however, may be caused by an infection or disease, such as: 

When to see the doctor for vaginal discharge

If you have unusual discharge, see your doctor as soon as possible, especially if the discharge occurs alongside other symptoms, such as: 

  • Pain while urinating 
  • Itching or burning 
  • Pelvic pain (pain in the area between your stomach and thighs)
  • Bleeding after sex or between periods
  • Increased discharge

Diagnosing vaginal discharge

To diagnose the cause of your vaginal discharge, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, your recent sexual partners, your birth control and antibiotic use, and recent changes in your health or lifestyle. 

Your doctor will then perform a pelvic exam, where they will use a speculum to look at your cervix. They will also take a sample of your discharge to examine under a microscope. Your doctor may also place their fingers inside you to check for tenderness, which is a sign of some STDs or pelvic inflammatory disease

If they suspect you may have gonorrhea or chlamydia, they will also send a sample of your vaginal fluid for testing.

Treatments for vaginal discharge

If you have been previously diagnosed with a yeast infection and experience the symptoms again, you can use an over-the-counter antifungal cream for treatment. However, if you’re unsure about your diagnosis or your symptoms don’t go away, see your doctor. 

Infections like trichomoniasis and bacterial vaginosis require oral antibiotics or an antibiotic injection. Depending on your diagnosis, some conditions can also be treated with an antibiotic vaginal cream or gel. While waiting for the medication to take effect, you can apply a cold compress to ease discomfort. 

Preventative measures include practicing good hygiene, wearing breathable cotton underwear, and practicing safe sex. Avoid using douches, as they can make discharge worse and increase your risk of infection by removing healthy bacteria from your vagina.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/8/2021
References
The BMJ: "Vaginal Discharge."

Epidemiologic Reviews: "Vaginal Douching: Evidence for Risks or Benefits to Women’s Health."

Harvard Health: "Vaginal Discharge."

International Society for Sexual Medicine: "What are vaginal fluids and what is their purpose?"

The Journal of Sexual Medicine: "Female Ejaculation Orgasm vs. Coital Incontinence: A Systematic Review."

National Health Service: "Vaginal Discharge."

Sutter Health: "Vaginal Discharge."

UC Davis Health: "What are the symptoms of early miscarriage?"

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "HPV - Women’s Health Guide."