What is vaginal discharge?
A certain amount of vaginal discharge from your body is normal for both menstruation and regular vaginal health. However, changes in vaginal discharge can be a sign of a problem.
The menstrual cycle refers to the monthly changes a woman’s body goes through to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy. Once a month, the ovaries release an egg in a process known as ovulation. While this is happening, hormonal changes get the uterus ready for hosting a fertilized egg.
If the egg is not fertilized by sperm, the uterine lining is shed through the vagina. This is the part of the cycle referred to as the period, or menstruation. However, this is not the only part of the cycle that involves vaginal discharge.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, though it can last anywhere from 21 to 35 days. The cycle is considered to begin on the first day of the period, rather than the last.
There are four phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Menses. This phase usually lasts for one to five days and is when the uterine lining is shed. Bleeding typically lasts for three to five days.
- Follicular phase. During this phase, estrogen levels rise and cause the endometrium, or uterine lining, to thicken. Follicles, or the beginnings of egg cells, begin to grow, with one maturing into an egg. This phase usually lasts from days six to 14 of the cycle.
- Ovulation. An increase in a hormone known as luteinizing hormone leads to the release of a mature egg from one of the ovaries. This phase happens on about day 14 of an average 28-day cycle. It is also at this stage where you will begin to notice more vaginal discharge.
- Luteal phase.The egg begins to travel to the uterus through the fallopian tubes. If sperm fertilizes the egg and the egg attaches to the uterus, pregnancy is the result. If fertilization does not happen, hormone levels drop and the body prepares for menses. This phase happens from days 15 to 28.
Signs of vaginal discharge
It’s normal for a certain amount of fluid to flow out of the vaginal opening during the menstrual cycle. This vaginal discharge, also known as cervical mucus, helps keep the vagina clean and is generally clear or milky white and thin.
Vaginal discharge varies throughout the menstrual cycle and indicates various stages of fertility. You may notice a change in cervical mucus around the time of ovulation, when estrogen levels rise to help release an egg. Fertility may be highest when the texture of the mucus resembles a raw egg white, as this may help sperm reach the egg.
Up to 30 times more mucus is produced before ovulation than after ovulation. Different types of discharge are associated with different phases of the menstrual cycle, including:
- Thick, white discharge. This indicates that you are near the beginning or end of the menstrual cycle.
- Clear, stretchy discharge. This indicates that you are ovulating.
- Clear, watery discharge. This occurs at other times of the menstrual cycle.
- Brown discharge. This may occur immediately after a period and is a sign of your vagina being cleared out.
- Yellow or green discharge. This may indicate an infection, particularly if it’s thick or smells different than usual.
Causes of vaginal discharge
A certain amount of vaginal discharge from your body is normal for both menstruation and regular vaginal health. This discharge is usually milky and doesn’t smell bad. In addition to changes around the time of ovulation, vaginal discharge can become thicker when you are breastfeeding or sexually aroused.
However, changes in vaginal discharge can be a sign of a problem. Increased discharge or a change in the smell or color — along with burning or irritation around your vagina — can be signs of vaginitis, or an inflammation of the vagina. This is most often caused by an infection or a change in vaginal bacteria.
Spotting, or light bleeding between periods, can also indicate a health issue. Spotting may be red or brown and may be accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain, an irregular period, or burning during urination.
Changes in vaginal discharge can also occur due to:
- Using feminine hygiene sprays
- Using certain types of soaps
- Taking antibiotics
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When to see a doctor for vaginal discharge
Any changes in vaginal discharge — including color, smell, or volume — are cause to see a doctor. You should also contact your health care provider if you experience any of the following:
- Your period suddenly stops
- You’re experiencing severe pain during your period
- You’re experiencing spotting, or bleeding, between periods
- You’re bleeding more often or more heavily
Diagnosis for vaginal discharge
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, your doctor will need to perform an examination to determine what might be wrong. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and perform a pelvic exam to look for discharge or swelling.
Your doctor will most likely be looking for one of the following:
Treatments for vaginal discharge
Bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis are treated by antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams, though a doctor may change the treatment if symptoms don’t improve.
The following may help prevent abnormal vaginal discharge:
- Wiping from front to back after using the bathroom
- Wearing breathable cotton underpants and avoiding tight articles of clothing
- Avoiding hot tubs
- Not douching
- Avoiding feminine hygiene sprays
What does yellow discharge mean?
The vagina or birth canal is a part of the female reproductive system. It is a muscular canal that connects the uterus with the exterior. It has its defense mechanism to protect itself from infections transmitted from the adjacent anus or during sexual intercourse.
The vaginal discharge is the fluid secreted from the uterus, cervix (neck of the uterus) and vagina. This discharge may be normal or abnormal. The normal vaginal discharge contains good bacteria and the shed vaginal cells. This discharge keeps the vagina healthy, provides lubrication and protects against infection and irritation.
The normal fluid may range from whitish and sticky to clear and watery depending on the stage of your reproductive (menstrual) cycle. Other conditions such as contraceptive pills, pregnancy, delivery of a baby or an antibiotic course can alter the smell and color of the normal vaginal fluid. The normal vaginal fluid does not cause itching and irritation and has a mild odor. The discharge may become more noticeable at the mid-menstrual cycle, under stress and during sexual activity.
A thick yellow vaginal discharge may point to vaginitis (infection of the vagina). Depending on the personal history (recent sexual activity, history of urinary infection, blood-stained spots, lower abdominal pain, fever, rashes and recent surgery), your doctor can diagnose whether the discharge is serious.
- Young sexually active woman: Yellow discharge in a young sexually active woman that is accompanied by intense itching and has curdy texture points to a fungal infection called candidiasis. If the discharge is greyish yellow, with bad odor and stuck to the vaginal lips, it is mostly bacterial vaginosis. Another parasitic infection called trichomoniasis is characterized by thick yellow discharge with fishy smell and intense burning while passing urine and itching and pain during intercourse. If your vaginal discharge is accompanied by spotting or cramps, your doctor may suspect a uterine infection or disease of the cervix (neck of the womb). If you have had unprotected intercourse and develop yellow discharge, there is a chance of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea and chlamydia that need prompt diagnosis and treatment. Finally, a tumor of the vagina, womb or cervix can also cause white discharge.
- Pregnant woman: A pregnant woman will have increased vaginal discharge in pregnancy. However, if the discharge is copious enough that a woman develops wet undergarments or it causes discomfort, alert your doctor immediately. Similarly, white discharge post pregnancy called the lochia is normal up to six to eight weeks post-delivery.
- Prepubertal child: The most common causes of yellowish vaginal discharge in an adolescent girl are constipation, worm infestation and poor hygiene. Allergic reaction to bubble baths, deodorant soaps, tight leotards and jeans are also the culprits for white discharge. A foreign body inside the vagina is an important cause that must be diagnosed or ruled out in time. Measures such as a good diet, deworming, wearing nightgowns that allow the air to circulate and double rinsing the underwear after washing to avoid residual irritants may help reduce the frequency of discharge. Avoid using fabric softeners for underwear and swimsuits. Skirts and loose-fitting pants allow the air to circulate better and may be used instead of tight jeans. Always supervise the toilet hygiene in a child younger than six years of age. Emphasize wiping front-to-back after bowel movements. Allowing the child to soak in a tub of clean warm water (no soap) for 10 to 15 minutes daily may help relieve itching and redness. Rinse the genital area well and gently pat dry.
- Postmenopausal woman: If your discharge develops after a gynecologic surgery such as hysterectomy, it may be due to a vaginal fistula (an abnormal passage between the uterus and bladder or rectum). A condition called cervical ectropion in which the cells inside the cervix grow on the outer side may also cause discharge. Other possibilities are a vaginal infection or, rarely, tumor of the vagina or cervix.
Medically Reviewed on 2/28/2022
Cleveland Clinic: “Normal Menstruation.”
Harvard Medical School: “Vaginal Discharge.”
Mayo Clinic: “Menstrual cycle: What’s normal, what’s not.”
Mayo Clinic: “Vaginitis.”
Medscape Medical Reference
Sutter Health: “Vaginal Discharge.”