Vaginal discharge raises common questions for women, including what’s normal and what’s not. Justine Burris, CNM, MSN, UnityPoint Health, talks in-depth about female vaginal discharge, from healthy discharge colors, to what concerns might require a trip to see a provider.
What Does Vaginal Discharge Mean?
Burris describes vaginal discharge as fluid released by glands in the vagina and cervix. The fluid carries dead cells and bacteria out of the body, and vaginal discharge helps keep the vagina clean and prevent infection. Burris also says normal vaginal discharge varies in amount and ranges in color from clear to milky, white discharge. Discharge may have a slight odor as well, although a foul, fishy odor is a sign of an infection.
“There are times when discharge amounts can change,” Burris says. “Immediately after a period, there is almost no discharge. Two to three days after the period ends, there is a thick, white discharge. A few days later, the consistency changes to appear more like mucous. Before ovulation, the discharge becomes clear and sticky, and before the next period, discharge is thick and white in consistency.”
Vaginal discharge during pregnancy is thin, white, milky and mild smelling. The amount of discharge also increases during pregnancy. However, during perimenopause and menopause, discharge decreases due to low levels of estrogen.
The following can cause estrogen levels to drop, leading to little to no vaginal discharge:
- Medicines or hormones used in the treatment of breast cancer, endometriosis, fibroids or infertility
- Surgery to remove the ovaries
- Radiation treatment to the pelvic area
- Severe stress, depression or intense exercise
Vaginal Discharge Color Meaning
Thick, White Discharge
If thick, white discharge goes along with other symptoms, such as itching, burning and irritation, it is probably due to a yeast infection. If not, it is normal discharge. You may also notice an increase in thick, white discharge before and after your period.
Yellow discharge is abnormal discharge, as this is a sign of a bacterial infection or sexually transmitted infection. There also may be an odor associated with it.
Brown discharge may be caused by irregular period cycles. If brown discharge keeps appearing, a patient should schedule an appointment with a provider to be evaluated. This could be a sign of uterine or cervical cancer. Additionally, during menopause, a woman should not have any type of vaginal bleeding, which is also a sign of uterine cancer.
Having green discharge is not normal. This is a sign of bacterial infection or a sexually transmitted infection, such as trichomoniasis. Anyone experiencing green discharge should see her provider. If you are diagnosed with trichomoniasis, you’ll be placed on antibiotics.
Yeast Infection Discharge
Yeast infection discharge is caused by an overgrowth of fungus in the vagina. Symptoms of yeast infection discharge include a thick, white, cottage cheese-like discharge, along with itching, redness, irritation and burning. Roughly 90 percent of women will have a yeast infection at some point in their life. Yeast infections are not contagious, and over-the-counter antifungal creams are available for a patient to use. But, if symptoms don’t improve with treatment or she has more than four yeast infections in a year, she should see her provider.
“Stay aware of normal and abnormal changes in vaginal discharge. This allows patients to identify infection and other problems. If you have any questions about the type of vaginal discharge you’re experiencing, contact your provider,” Burris says.
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