When is Vaginal Discharge Abnormal

Experiencing frequent vaginal discharge is usually a normal phenomenon. Fluids manufactured by the glands inside your vagina and cervix are merely doing their job: they’re flushing away dead cells and bacteria. Consider it their way of keeping your vagina clean, lubricated and free of infections.

And this discharge can vary in terms of color, odor and quantity. A lot of that is dependent on things like your menstrual cycle or if you’re breastfeeding, ovulating or are sexually aroused. Even medications, like antibiotics or steroids, douching or using certain soaps or bubble baths can change the nature of your discharge.

When is it time for concern? If the color is different than normal (normal ranges from clear to whitish and sticky). If the odor changes. Or if the consistency of the discharge is not what you’re used to. And especially if you have vaginal itching, redness, bleeding, spotting or burning. Then it’s time to see your health care professional.

Those could be symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection, which could, if left untreated, spread to your uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes and be passed on to your sexual partners. The two sexually transmitted infections most commonly associated with vaginal discharge are gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Or, it could be many other things—among them bacterial vaginosis, cervicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, a yeast infection or even a forgotten tampon. Sometimes—though rarely—a vaginal discharge can be a sign of cancer.

Bacterial vaginosis, one of the most common vaginal infections in women of childbearing age, is characterized by a thin, milky discharge that may also be accompanied by a strong, fishy odor. Contrasted (and sometimes confused) with that are discharges caused by yeast infections: These are odorless, thick and white.

Discharge or not, you can keep your vagina healthy by wiping front to back after using the toilet; wearing cotton underpants; and avoiding hot tubs, douching, feminine hygiene sprays and colored or perfumed toilet tissue and deodorant pads.

Whatever the cause, vaginal discharges and the underlying issues can be treated. But it’s important to remember that if you experience any abnormal discharge, check in with your health care provider, who can determine the cause. It’s important not to self-diagnose your discharge, because that could result in a misdiagnosis and, hence, incorrect—or no—treatment.

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