Doctor's Notes on Vaginal Discharge Types, Causes, and Treatment
Vaginal discharge is fluid produced by glands in the vaginal wall and cervix that exits from the opening of the vagina. A certain amount of vaginal discharge as normal. However, an increased amount of discharge, an abnormal odor or consistency of the fluid, or vaginal discharge accompanied by pain may be signs of a vaginal infection or other condition. Vaginal discharge can be caused by bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, or infections like Chlamydia, gonorrhea, or Trichomonas that are passed to others through sexual contact. Soaps, douches, or spermicides are other possible causes of vaginal discharge.
Depending on the cause of the vaginal discharge and particularly when an infection is present, there can be other symptoms associated with the condition, like pain during urination, pain with sexual intercourse, and burning or itching of the vagina.
Vaginal Discharge Types, Causes, and Treatment Symptoms
Vaginal discharge may range in color from clear to gray, yellow, greenish, or milky-white and may have an unpleasant smell. The symptoms and character of vaginal discharge depend upon the specific condition that is the cause of the discharge.
- Bacterial vaginosis: Not all women with bacterial vaginosis will have symptoms, but bacterial vaginosis typically produces a discharge that is thin and grayish-white in color. It is usually accompanied by a foul, fishy smell.
- Trichomonas: Trichomonas infection produces a frothy, yellow-green vaginal discharge with a strong odor. Associated symptoms can include discomfort during intercourse and urination, as well as irritation and itching of the female genital area.
- Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea may not produce symptoms in up to half of infected women, but it can also cause burning with urination or frequent urination, a yellowish vaginal discharge, redness and swelling of the genitals, and a burning or itching of the vaginal area.
- Chlamydia: Like gonorrhea, Chlamydia infection may not produce symptoms in many women. Others may experience increased vaginal discharge as well as the symptoms of a urinary tract infection if the urethra is involved.
- Vaginal yeast infection: A vaginal yeast infection is usually associated with a thick, white vaginal discharge that may have the texture of cottage cheese. The discharge is generally odorless. Other symptoms can include burning, soreness, and pain during urination or sexual intercourse.
Vaginal Discharge Types, Causes, and Treatment Causes
The vaginal walls and uterine cervix contain glands that produce a small amount of fluid that helps to keep the vagina clean. This normal vaginal discharge is typically clear or milky white in color and does not have an unpleasant odor.
A number of different infections can cause a change in the amount, consistency, color, or odor of vaginal discharge. These include:
- Bacterial vaginosis is a condition is caused by an imbalance in the growth of the bacteria that are normally present in the vagina. It is not known exactly why this imbalance in bacterial growth occurs. This condition was formerly known as Gardnerella vaginitis after one type of bacteria that commonly cause the condition.
- Trichomoniasis (trich) is infection by a single-celled parasite known as Trichomonas vaginalis. The infection is transmitted by sexual contact.
- Gonorrhea is the sexually-transmitted disease (STD) resulting from infection by the bacteria known as Neisseria gonorrhoeae.
- Chlamydia is another sexually-transmitted infection (STD) due to the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. Although infected women may not have symptoms, a vaginal discharge may occur.
- Yeast infection (candidiasis) occurs when there is an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina, often due to antibiotic use or other factors that affect the natural balance of bacteria in the vaginal area. Candida species are the type of yeast most commonly responsible.
Vaginal bleeding is different from vaginal discharge. The infections listed above are causes of abnormal vaginal discharge without the presence of significant vaginal bleeding.
After reviewing your symptoms and medical history, the health-care professional will likely perform a pelvic examination, which includes examination of the external genital area and the insertion of a speculum to examine the vaginal walls and cervix.
Depending upon the examination, the health-care professional may take swabs of the vaginal discharge for culture or for examination under a microscope to help define the cause of the vaginal discharge.
It's not necessary to have sexual intercourse to get a sexually-transmitted disease (STD). The human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes genital warts can be transmitted by close skin-to-skin contact. Some types of HPVs cause cervical or anal cancer, and vaccines are available to protect against the most dangerous types. Other HPV types cause genital warts, which can be raised, flat, or cauliflower-shaped. HPV infection can occur in people who have no symptoms or visible warts.
- Genital warts can be big or small, flat or raised. They generally appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital region, and may be shaped like a cauliflower.
- A vaccine to prevent HPV is given in three shots. The second shot is given a month or two after the first shot. The third shot comes six months after the first shot.
- The Centers for Disease Control recommends boys and girls be vaccinated at ages 11 or 12.
- If they did not get the HPV vaccine as children, women can get the HPV vaccine through age 26. Men can get it through age 21. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for men through age 26 for men who have sex with men or men with compromised immune systems, including HIV.
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.