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Vaginal Discharge

What is vaginal discharge?

Discharge is a normal vaginal function that sweeps dead cells and bacteria out of the vagina when fluid is released from the glands inside the vagina and cervix. Discharge can also be a sign of imbalance in the vagina due to a number of conditions, both sexual and non-sexual.

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Causes of discharge that cannot be passed sexually:

  • Antibiotics
  • Birth control
  • Cervical cancer
  • Irritation due to douching
  • Allergic reaction to scented lotions or soaps
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
  • Yeast infections

Discharge that is abnormal in color and texture or is accompanied by an unusual odor is a sign of an sexually transmitted disease. Bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections are non-sexual conditions that occur in many women when the normal bacteria or fungal levels, respectively, become unbalanced. Both conditions can cause vaginal discharge, odor, and itching, and require treatment.

When is vaginal discharge abnormal?

If a sexually transmitted disease is the cause of discharge, it is due to bacteria, fungi, or other intruders that cause inflammation in the vagina, cervix, or urinary tract. The cause of the discharge is what determines the color, texture, and odor.

Discharge can be:

  • Thin and watery
  • Thick and viscous
  • Gummy or cottage cheese-like texture
  • Milky or grayish white
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Bloody
  • Odorless
  • “Fishy” smelling

Which STDs cause vaginal discharge?

Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the STDs most commonly associated with vaginal discharge, especially bloody discharge. Chlamydia is the most common STD among women and gonorrhea often occurs with chlamydia in what is known as a co-infection. Both are easily treated by antibiotics (a single dose if caught early enough), but can cause very serious long-term side effects if left untreated.

Trichomoniasis, an STD caused by a protozoan parasite, is also commonly associated with vaginal discharge with a strong, unpleasant odor.

Getting tested is the first step in determining whether an STD is the cause of vaginal discharge. Frequent STD testing also prevents the progression of STDs that may be present but not showing symptoms.

  1. "Vaginal Discharge." Office of Population Affairs. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/fact-sheets/vaginal-discharge/index.html
  2. "Vaginal Discharge." Sutter Health: Palo Alto Medical Foundation. http://www.pamf.org/teen/health/femalehealth/discharge.html
  3. "Vaginal Discharge: What's Normal, What's Not." Kids Health. Reviewed by Robyn R. Miller, MD. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/vdischarge2.html
  4. "Diseases Characterized by Vaginal Discharge." 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/vaginal-discharge.htm

Medically Reviewed by on Jun 18, 2019

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