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Vaginal Discharge: Reading the Signs

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Vaginal discharge is a combination of fluid and cells that continuously shed through the vagina, wrote the Mayo Clinic. The function is to clean and protect the vagina. The color and consistency of this discharge vary from whitish and sticky, to clear and watery.

McKinley Health Center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said changes in normal discharge occur for many reasons, including menstrual cycle, emotional stressors, nutritional status, pregnancy, medications and sexual arousal.

Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice column reported that changes in the color, consistency, amount, and/or smell of vaginal discharge that are unlike a woman’s normal monthly changes may be cause for concern.

Vaginal discharge might be a sign of an infection if it has a bad odor, is green, yellow, or gray in color. Another possible sign of infection would be if the discharge looks foamy or like cottage cheese, said Cleveland Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic added that although most causes of abnormal vaginal discharge are relatively harmless, they can be extremely uncomfortable.

SymptomFind.com said that if a woman experiences abnormal vaginal discharge associated with any of the following symptoms -- itching, swelling, increased urination, bleeding between periods or after menopause, lesions on the genitals, fever, pelvic or genital pain, and burning during urination -- it could be a sign of something more serious.

One of the more common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge is bacterial vaginosis (BV) wrote the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Bacteria that normally live in the vagina overgrow, causing a grey discharge and fishy odor that worsen after sexual intercourse.

Another cause is a yeast infection. This occurs when there is an overabundance of yeast, often caused by a change in the pH balance of the vagina. The Cleveland Clinic described the discharge as being thick and white, like cottage cheese. Other symptoms include redness, itching, burning in vaginal/vulvar area.

Abnormal vaginal discharge may also accompany certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) wrote Mayo Clinic. One is trichomoniasis which causes frothy, yellow or greenish discharge with a bad odor. Symptoms include pain and itching while urinating.

Other STDs that can cause abnormal vaginal discharge include chlamydia, genital warts, gonorrhea, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Other causes of abnormal vaginal discharge may include cervical or vaginal cancer (rarely a cause of excess discharge), cervicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, rectovaginal fistula, vaginal atrophy, vaginitis and vesicovaginal fistula.

WebMD said other causes of abnormal vaginal discharge include antibiotic or steroid use, birth control pills, diabetes, douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath, and pelvic infection after surgery. NIH added desquamative vaginitis, or lichen planus, and a forgotten tampon or foreign body may also be causes.

Women who have abnormal vaginal discharge with any of the above symptoms, should visit their health care provider.


"Cleveland Clinic." Cleveland Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/vaginal_discharge/hic_vaginal_discharge.aspx.

Innes, Wendy. "Vaginal Discharge Symptoms: Learn More About Warning Signs, Find Causes & Treatments." Symptomfind.com: Check Your Medical Symptoms & Find Causes, Tests, Diagnosis & Treatments Options. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://www.symptomfind.com/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/.

"Vaginal Discharge - Causes, Types, Diagnosis and Treatment of Vaginal Disharge - from WebMD." Women's Health Center: Information on Women's Wellness, Nutrition, Fitness, Intimate Questions, and Weight Loss. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://women.webmd.com/vaginal-discharge-whats-abnormal.

"Vaginal Discharge - Knowing the difference between normal discharge and infections - McKinley Health Center - University of Illinois." McKinley Health Center - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/vaginal_discharge.html.

"Vaginal discharge - MayoClinic.com." Mayo Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vaginal-discharge/MY00097.

"Vaginal discharge: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia." National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003158.htm.

"What is normal vaginal discharge? | Go Ask Alice!." Go Ask Alice! N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2012. http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/what-normal-vaginal-discharge.

Reviewed May 30, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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