Many women worry about a vaginal discharge, but in most cases there is nothing to worry about. Here we’ll explain everything a woman needs to know to understand vaginal discharge so she knows what is normal and when to see her doctor.
Vaginal discharge refers to the fluid secretions that come from a woman’s vagina. The discharge can vary in color, consistency and smell. Some daily discharge is perfectly normal, especially in women who are in their childbearing years, but it can also be a sign of infection, particularly if it is accompanied by other symptoms.
Why Does It Happen?
Vaginal discharge is the result of the natural processes in the body. The discharge is a combination of the fluid in the vagina and the cells that are continually shed. This is completely normal. However there are many ways in which the natural balance in the vagina can become disrupted, thus changing the vaginal discharge.
It’s important to know that usually a discharge is not a sign of a problem. It’s completely normal for a discharge to change throughout a woman’s cycle and even during pregnancy. Only if accompanied by other symptoms or discomfort could it be a sign that something is wrong. For the sake of clarity, we’ll discuss abnormal discharges here.
Causes And Accompanying Symptoms
The cause of abnormal discharge is usually some kind of infection. There are a number of different infections that can affect a woman’s vagina, some more common than others.
The two major causes of an abnormal vaginal discharge are either a yeast infection or a bacterial infection. These two problems can occur at the same time and have similar symptoms included intense burning and itching and a thick vaginal discharge. Other causes include:
- Cervical cancer - this is rare, but occasionally it is the cause of an abnormal discharge.
- Cervicitis - swelling of the cervix; this is often caused by some sexually transmitted infection.
- Genital warts
- HPV infection
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Rectovaginal fistula - this is rare in the United States. A rectovaginal fistula is what happens when an opening occurs between the vagina and rectum, allowing fecal matter to exit the body through the vagina.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Trichomoniasis - this is a type of sexually transmitted infection
- Vaginal atrophy - thinning and inflammation of the vaginal walls. This is usually due to the reduction of estrogen that is seen in menopause.
- Vaginal cancer - this is a rare type of cancer.
- Vesicovaginal fistula-this is a fistula that forms between the bladder and vagina, allowing urine to pass through the vagina.
If a woman is experiencing an abnormal discharge associated with any of the following symptoms, she should see her doctor, because it could be a sign that something is wrong.
- Foul odor
- Increased urination
- Bleeding between periods or after menopause
- Lesions on the genitals
- Discharge that is yellow, grey, greenish or brown in color (remember that after menstruation some residual blood in the vagina can cause a brownish discharge and is normal)
- Pelvic or genital pain
- Burning during urination
Treatment can vary based upon the cause of the abnormal discharge. If the cause is a yeast infection, simple over-the-counter vaginal creams and suppositories can provide relief from the itching and burning while clearing up the infection. There are also prescription medications available that will kill a yeast infection in just one or two doses.
If the cause of the abnormal discharge is a bacterial infection a doctor can prescribe anti-bacterial medication that will easily treat the infection. Keep in mind that it is possible to have both bacterial and yeast infections at the same time so if treating one doesn’t work, see a doctor. Both infections can be treated simultaneously.
If a woman suspects that the cause of her discharge is a sexually transmitted disease (STDs) she and her partner need to see a doctor and get tested. STDs are easily spread and many have a latent period that have no symptoms at all, which means that by the time a woman has any symptoms, she could have had the infection for quite a while, allowing it to spread to other reproductive organs, causing a number of problems.
If a woman suspects any of the other conditions listed above she needs to see her doctor immediately. Often conditions are easily treated with medications to treat the underlying cause, whether that’s an infection or inflammation or simply a drop in estrogen production. It’s also important that a woman verify whether or not she is pregnant, as this can also cause vaginal discharges to change.
If a woman experiences frequent yeast infections or bacterial infections, she may consider a daily supplement of acidophilus or grapefruit seed extract. Acidophilus is a good type of bacteria that keeps yeast from growing out of control. Grapefruit seed extract is available in both pill form and liquid form and can be taken as a systemic prophylactic against a multitude of infections, but the liquid form can be mixed into a douche to help treat an infection.
Many doctors recommend against douching because it can disrupt the natural balance in the vagina, and for the most part this is true. However if a woman has an infection, medicated douches, either those sold over-the-counter or the kind that can be made from grapefruit seed extract, can help clear an infection and bring some relief, but a woman should always discuss this with her doctor or naturopath first.
An abnormal vaginal discharge can be uncomfortable and worrisome, but it doesn’t need to be. By following these tips women can find relief from their symptoms and return to normal quickly.