Abnormal vaginal discharge: common causes, types, and treatments

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on March 27, 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.


Vaginal discharge is an often normal occurrence for women because the female body produces cervical fluid, which changes in amount and quality throughout the course of the menstrual cycle.

However, some types of vaginal discharge, like excessive vaginal discharge or smelly vaginal discharge, may be abnormal—and a sign of infection of some kind. Any discharge that has a chunky consistency, a green or yellow color, or a foul odor may be a cause for concern.


Abnormal vaginal discharge can result from certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia and gonorrhea. Check for 6 common STIs from the privacy of home with the Everlywell at-home STD Test for women.


Read on to discover common causes of abnormal discharge, related health conditions, what you can do to address it, and more.

Common causes of abnormal discharge

Abnormal vaginal discharge usually indicates an infection. Vaginal discharge that is caused by an infection may have a strong odor, a yellow or green color, or an abnormal consistency.

The following are some common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge.

Yeast infection

Yeast infections are very common in women. Some yeast in the vagina is normal, but if yeast multiplies out of control, it may lead to a yeast infection. Symptoms of a yeast infection include burning and itching in the genital area, along with white discharge with a cottage cheese-like consistency. Yeast infections can be caused by the use of antibiotics, which can upset the body’s natural bacteria levels.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is a common infection caused by bacterial overgrowth. BV can cause an increase in vaginal discharge, which may have a foul or fishy odor. Left untreated, it can increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy complications. Fortunately, though, BV is usually easy to treat with medication.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a single-celled, microscopic parasite. Trichomoniasis typically spreads through sexual contact (specifically, vaginal sex vs. oral or anal sex). Trichomoniasis can cause a green or yellow vaginal discharge, along with pain, inflammation, and itching, although many people who have the parasite have no symptoms.


Our at-home Trichomoniasis Test lets you test for trichomoniasis in the comfort of your own home.


Gonorrhea and chlamydia

Gonorrhea and chlamydia are sexually transmitted bacterial infections, both of which can cause abnormal vaginal discharge. Symptoms of gonorrhea are similar to those of a yeast infection and may include a watery, creamy, or slightly green vaginal discharge.

Many people who have chlamydia experience no symptoms, but chlamydia can cause serious health complications if left untreated. Chlamydia can cause a vaginal discharge that may resemble mucus or pus.

With proper treatment and early detection, gonorrhea and chlamydia can usually be completely cured. Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can be detected with our at-home Chlamydia & Gonorrhea Test.

Uterine cancer

Irregular periods or spotting are often the reason for brown vaginal discharge. However, if brown discharge continues for an extended period, or if it occurs after menopause, it may be a sign of uterine or endometrial cancer. Other symptoms of uterine cancer include abnormal vaginal bleeding and/or pelvic pain.

Vaginal atrophy

Vaginal atrophy refers to the thinning and drying out of the walls of the vagina. Common symptoms include vaginal irritation, dryness, and pain during intercourse. Symptoms can also include burning during urination, itching, and abnormal vaginal discharge. Vaginal atrophy most often occurs during menopause, but it can result from anything that causes a loss of estrogen. That can include chemotherapy, removal of the ovaries during a hysterectomy, and certain medications.

Seeking medical care for abnormal vaginal discharge

If you have abnormal vaginal discharge along with other symptoms, a good step to take is seeing your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Other symptoms to watch for include:

  • Fever
  • Increased urination
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Once your healthcare provider makes a diagnosis, you may be provided with treatment options. Treatment will depend on the cause of the abnormal discharge. Yeast infections are typically treated with antifungal creams or gels that are inserted into the vagina. Bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea can often be treated with antibiotics, while trichomoniasis can be treated with other medications.

Other remedies

Over-the-counter creams can frequently help with a yeast infection—and to prevent yeast infections in the future, ask your healthcare provider about taking a probiotic whenever you use an antibiotic.

To prevent bacterial overgrowth in the vagina, wear breathable cotton underwear, and practice good hygiene. Practice safe sex (by using protection, for example) to reduce your risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections that can cause abnormal genital discharges.

Common questions about abnormal discharges

What is vaginal discharge?

Normal vaginal discharge in the form of cervical fluid is part of a usual, healthy process in the body. This cervical fluid has several purposes: it helps keep the vagina lubricated, and, during a woman’s fertility window, it helps transport sperm into the uterus.

Many women track their cervical fluid, along with other signs, to help predict ovulation. As ovulation approaches, the fluid may be off-white or cloudy. It may also be stretchy in consistency. Immediately before ovulation, the fluid may become clear and slippery. At this stage, it’s often compared to egg whites.

How can you tell the difference between normal vaginal discharge and a yeast infection?

Normal vaginal discharge is usually cloudy or clear and stretchy. Discharge from a yeast infection is usually thick and white. It may have a lumpy consistency, similar to cottage cheese. It may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as burning during urination and swelling around the vaginal opening.

What should I do if I have discharge that smells?

Normal vaginal discharge may have a slight odor. This is completely normal, and you don’t need to try to get rid of the odor. The smell can change depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. If the smell becomes strong, unpleasant, or fishy, consider speaking with your healthcare provider to help determine if it’s abnormal.


References

1. Vaginal Discharge. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

2. Vaginal discharge. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

3. Bacterial vaginosis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

4. Trichomoniasis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

5. Chlamydial Infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

6. Vaginal atrophy. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

7. Cervical mucus method for natural family planning. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 20, 2020.

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