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What Causes Vaginal Discharge?

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Updated April 10, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It is normal for women to have some amount of vaginal discharge. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. It produces mucus and other secretions, and that vaginal fluid eventually needs to go somewhere -- such as out onto your panties as discharge.

It is also normal for the amount and consistency of a woman's vaginal discharge to change throughout her menstrual cycle. In fact, monitoring the consistency of cervical mucus is a type of fertility awareness method that allows women to time sexual intercourse so that it is most likely to get them pregnant.

Not all vaginal discharge is normal, however. Vaginal discharge that is accompanied by a strong vaginal odor, for example, may be a sign of an STD infection or other type of vaginitis. If you experience an unusual change in your vaginal discharge odor, thickness, or amount, it may be worth visiting your gynecologist to be screened for STDs and other vaginal infections.

Some common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge include:

  • Yeast Infections
    Yeast infections are one of the most common causes of vaginal discharge. Most of the time the discharge associated with a yeast infection is white and clumpy, sort of like ricotta cheese, but it can range in color and texture all the way to yellow and runny.

    The far more telling thing about a yeast infection is the vaginal discharge odor -- it tends to, but does not always, smell like yeasty beer or bread. It is also often accompanied by intense vaginal itching or burning.

  • Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
    As with yeast infections, it's the vaginal discharge odor that's the important clue to diagnosing bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis is associated with a strong fishy smell that may be particularly pungent after sex.

    The vaginal discharge associated with bacterial vaginosis tends to be very runny, and it may also be accompanied by vaginal itching and burning during urination.

  • Trichomoniasis
    Trichomoniasis is one of the few sexually transmitted diseases that causes no symptoms more often in men than in women (asymptomatic).

    In women, this parasitic infection usually causes a strong-smelling, frothy discharge that ranges in color from greenish-yellow to grey. It can also cause discomfort during sex, vaginal itching, and other related symptoms.

  • Chlamydia
    Although chlamydia is almost always asymptomatic in women, it can cause vaginal discharge. The discharge associated with a chlamydia infection does not tend to have a particularly strong odor.

    Women with chlamydia may also experience burning during urination and nondescript lower abdominal pain.

  • Gonorrhea
    As with chlamydia, most cases of gonorrhea in women are asymptomatic. However, it can cause vaginal discharge as well as burning during urination and pelvic pain.

    Vaginal discharge odor with gonorrhea is usually minimal, and neither chlamydia nor gonorrhea can be diagnosed via discharge alone.

Sources:

The CDC Fact Sheet on Bacterial Vaginosis Accessed 5/9/07.

The CDC Fact Sheet on Gonorrhea. Accessed 12/24/09.

The CDC Fact Sheet on Chamydia. Accessed 12/24/09.

Abbott J. Clinical and microscopic diagnosis of vaginal yeast infection: a prospective analysis. Ann Emerg Med. 1995 May;25(5):587-91

Bornstein J, Lakovsky Y, Lavi I, Bar-Am A, Abramovici H. The classic approach to diagnosis of vulvovaginitis: a critical analysis. Infect Dis Obstet Gynecol. 2001;9(2):105-11.

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