Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on March 12, 2020. Written by Karen Eisenbraun. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
As any woman knows first-hand, vaginal discharges are a pretty common occurrence. And, most of the time, discharges are nothing to be alarmed about. For one, they help keep the vagina clean and free of harmful pathogens.
But maybe you’ve noticed something…different…about your vaginal discharge. Perhaps there’s an unusual odor—or the color of the discharge isn’t the translucent white or clear color that it normally is. Maybe you even have flu-like symptoms and have pain when you urinate. You don’t know if it’s a urinary tract infection, a yeast infection, or something else.
If that’s something you’re experiencing, it may be time to test for sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs (also known as sexually transmitted infections or STIs).
Here’s the reason why: a number of STDs can cause distinct changes in vaginal discharges—altering the color, scent, and more. That’s because several STDs can affect something called the “vaginal microflora.”
Several STDs can negatively affect something called the “vaginal microflora,” a community of good, helpful bacteria. This can result in a distinct vaginal discharge. Whether it’s a frothy discharge or a green, chunky discharge, it’ll probably be easy to see that your vaginal discharge isn’t what it’s typically like. In this guide, we’ll explain the difference between normal discharge and STD discharges so you can take next steps if necessary—like testing and treatment.
Vaginal discharge is the result of the cervix cleaning and maintaining itself to stay healthy. During this process, the cervix sheds vaginal cells, cervical mucus, and vaginal fluids which results in a white, opaque substance. Women who haven’t yet reached menopause typically experience discharge because it’s a natural part of the body’s functions.
What color is discharge and what is it supposed to look like?
The answer to that will vary from person-to-person, but most women have a white discharge. As soon as a women’s menstrual cycle ends, her discharge will be minimal. By the time of ovulation during her cycle, many will notice a stringy discharge and it may even begin to thicken.
However, it’s important to note that women on oral contraceptives may have a reduced amount of discharge, making it harder to identify what “normal” is for you. However, if you are experiencing a yellow, brown discharge or even an orange discharge color, it may mean you have a sexually transmitted infection. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis infections can all cause changes in a woman's discharge. (Related: Chlamydia & Gonorrhea Test)
You may have heard that the gut is full of friendly bacteria. The vagina, it turns out, is also inhabited by a community of good, helpful bacteria—a community known as the vaginal microflora. Scientists believe that some types of vaginal bacteria actually protect the health of your reproductive system.
These bacteria, it is thought, produce lactic acid—making the vagina a less hospitable place for germs. This, in turn, helps ward off infections of the reproductive system. However, despite this, infections can still occur.
Case in point: STDs.
Some STDs—though not all—can change the vagina’s microflora community by populating it with an army of hostile pathogens (“pathogen” simply refers to very tiny organisms, like bacteria or viruses, that cause disease). If that’s happened, then you might notice that your vagina’s discharges—which largely consist of vaginal bacteria—are a little different than usual. Maybe the color of the discharge is yellow or green. There could be an odd smell, too. These are all signs of an STD discharge.
These changes can cause orange vaginal discharge, chunky yellow discharge, and other abnormal discharges. A change in how your discharge smells—such as having a foul odor—is another sign your abnormal discharge might be due to an STD. So, if that’s what your discharges have been like lately, it could be because you’ve got an STD lurking in your vaginal microflora.
But abnormal vaginal discharges aren’t only associated with STDs. In fact, there are quite a number of possible reasons why your discharge might seem unusual—in terms of its color, scent, texture, or volume. That being said, though, you can look for clues in your discharge—clues which hint at the possibility of an STD.
So read on to discover what STD discharges look like to help you decide if it’s time to get tested.
Only some STDs are known to noticeably affect vaginal discharges. There are 3 such STDs to be exact: trichomoniasis (or “trich”), chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
Let’s consider each of these STDs in turn—and the effects they can have on vaginal discharges.
If you’ve recently been infected with trichomoniasis, then your discharge might be yellow-greenish in color—or, perhaps, just yellow. Your discharge could be frothy—or filled with tiny bubbles—and may have a distinct odor as well (which is often described as “fishy”). Additionally, you may experience a heavier discharge than normal—particularly as you near your menstrual cycle.
This picture changes a bit if you’re experiencing a chronic, long-term trich infection—in which case, you might see mucus mixed in with your discharge.
According to the CDC, approximately 70% of people infected with trichomoniasis do not show any symptoms. So you can still have trich even if you don’t have any abnormal discharges! Further, it’s impossible to diagnose trichomoniasis solely on the basis of external symptoms. Thus, if you suspect you have a trich infection, it’s a good idea to get tested for STDs—something you can now do with a convenient, at-home female STD test kit.
Any sexually active woman can get a chlamydial infection. You’re especially at risk if your age falls between 20 and 24.
Chlamydia is one sneaky STD because it rarely comes with any obvious symptoms (in fact, up to 80% of women infected with chlamydia do not have any symptoms, according to one study.
That’s not the only thing that makes chlamydia an insidious STD, either: left untreated, a chlamydial infection can seriously hurt a woman’s reproductive system—which can result in fertility—or cause an ectopic pregnancy (also known as an extrauterine pregnancy). Chlamydia in women can also result in pelvic inflammatory disease—leading to chronic pelvic pain.
The good news is that, once detected, chlamydia can be effectively treated. So, because chlamydia presents a real danger to a woman’s health—and because it is a curable infection— the CDC recommends that women under 25 get an annual screening for chlamydia.
Chlamydia infections do occasionally present with symptoms—like mucus- and pus-containing cervical discharges, which can come out as an abnormal vaginal discharge in some women. So, what does a chlamydia discharge look like? A chlamydia discharge is often yellow in color and has a strong odor. A symptom that frequently co-occurs with this discharge is painful urination that often has a burning sensation.
Like chlamydia, gonorrhea doesn’t always make itself known with immediately obvious symptoms. And also like chlamydia, gonorrhea discharges are frequently filled with mucus and pus—and commonly has a cloudy appearance—and can range from white to yellow to green in color.
Another symptom you might experience if you have gonorrhea is vaginal bleeding—even when you’re not menstruating.
If you are experiencing abnormal discharge and think it could be because of an STD, the best time to take action is now because of the long-term health consequences of untreated STDs. Talk with your healthcare provider and consider getting tested.
Regular STD testing is key: the CDC recommends that sexually active women under 25 get tested annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
You can test for STDs from the privacy of home with the Everlywell STD test kit—which includes a free phone consultation with a physician if you test positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and/or trichomoniasis.
To help prevent STDs, make sure you and/or your partner always use protection (like a latex condom) when having sex. Regular STD testing is another key step to take: while this won’t directly prevent STDs, it will let you know your status so you can get treatment for a sexually transmitted infection before it harms your health.
If you notice an unusual discharge, consult with your healthcare provider so they can evaluate your signs and symptoms and provide an accurate diagnosis.
While particular STDs can lead to abnormal vaginal discharges, a reliable diagnosis requires the use of laboratory testing techniques. But that doesn’t mean you have to personally go to a lab!
Why? Because you can test for STDs from the privacy of home with the Everlywell STD female test kit—which includes a free phone consultation with a doctor if you test positive.
Give your sexual health the care it deserves by testing with our easy-to-use, at-home STD test.
1. Unraveling the Dynamics of the Human Vaginal Microbiome. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. URL. Published 2016. Accessed March 12, 2020.
2. Spence D, Melville C. Vaginal discharge. BMJ. 2007;335(7630):1147-1151. doi:10.1136/bmj.39378.633287.80
3. Trichomoniasis - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 12, 2020.
4. Witkin SS, Minis E, Athanasiou A, Leizer J, Linhares IM. Chlamydia trachomatis: the Persistent Pathogen. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2017;24(10):e00203-17. doi:10.1128/CVI.00203-17
5. Chlamydia - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 12, 2020.
6. Gonorrhea - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 12, 2020.
7. Chlamydia Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.URL. Accessed March 12, 2020.