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Vaginal discharge: What’s normal, what’s not

Vaginal discharge can be a normal and healthy part of life. But sometimes, it can be a sign of an underlying health condition. Lacey Hutchinson, D.O., a Piedmont family medicine physician, explains what causes vaginal discharge, the signs of abnormal discharge and when to seek medical care.

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is comprised mostly of water and contains microorganisms. The vagina begins to make vaginal discharge at puberty. Normal vaginal discharge is clear to white or off-white and does not have a noticeable odor.

“Having vaginal discharge can be very normal and healthy,” says Dr. Hutchinson. “It can keep the genital area clean and healthy by removing dead cells from the lining of the vagina.”

It’s normal for vaginal discharge to change throughout the menstrual cycle and sometimes with the use of oral contraceptives, she says. For example, discharge may fluctuate from sticky and watery to thick and gooey. You may notice more or less discharge at certain times of the month.

Signs of abnormal vaginal discharge

“Abnormal discharge symptoms may include a change in color, odor or amount, as well as consistency from what is usual for you,” says Dr. Hutchinson.

Signs of abnormal vaginal discharge include:

  • Gray, dark yellow, green or brown color

  • Red discharge when you’re not on your period

  • Foul or fishy smell

  • Foamy or chunky texture  

  • Itching, irritation or pain in or near your vagina

  • Sudden increase in the amount of discharge

When to see a health care provider for vaginal discharge

It’s important to see your health care provider if you have abnormal vaginal discharge symptoms. Treatment will depend on what’s causing the issue.

“Vaginal discharge that is different in color, odor or amount can be a sign of a bacterial infection, yeast infection or sexually transmitted infection (STI),” she says.

How to prevent vaginal infections

The good news is there are many ways to reduce your risk of a vaginal infection. Dr. Hutchinson recommends the following:

  • Avoid the use of vaginal sprays, deodorants and douches. “These types of products can irritate the vagina and vulva and worsen symptoms,” she says. “Everyone’s body is different and anything that disrupts the vagina’s balance can lead to abnormal vaginal discharge.”

  • Avoid scented feminine products, including pads, tampons and liners.

  • Avoid fragranced toilet paper, bath products or laundry detergent.

  • Clean your vulva (the exterior portion of your genitals) with mild, fragrance-free soap and water.

  • Keep your vaginal area dry. Avoid wearing sweaty workout clothes or a wet bathing suit for a prolonged period of time.

  • Wear breathable cotton underwear.

  • Wear pants that fit well—avoid uncomfortably tight clothing.

  • Use condoms with new or different sexual partners to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

  • Wipe your vagina from front to back.

If you notice any abnormal vaginal discharge symptoms, talk to your primary care provider or gynecologist. While it can feel embarrassing to talk about vaginal discharge, it’s a common concern and your provider is there to help.

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