Vaginal discharge serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carries away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.
When Vaginal Discharge Isn’t Normal
While vaginal discharge is normal most of the time, in some instances it can indicate an infection. Normal discharge is clear or white and doesn’t smell bad. You should be concerned if your vaginal discharge is yellow, gray, or green, has a clumpy texture like cottage cheese, or has an abnormal odor.
Abnormal discharge could signal one of these conditions:
1. Vaginosis. Vaginal discharge that is yellow, green, or gray could indicate vaginosis, which is a bacterial vaginal infection. Another clue that you may have this type of infection: Your vaginal discharge will have a fishy smell.
2. Yeast infection. A white discharge that looks like cottage cheese is the cardinal sign of a yeast infection. You’ll probably also have intense itching and may notice some swelling around the vulva.
3. Trichomoniasis. Vaginal discharge that gives off a strong, unpleasant odor similar to that of rotten eggs is usually a sign of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) trichomoniasis. The vaginal discharge may also be frothy.
4. Chlamydia or gonorrhea. If you’re not pregnant or in the middle of your menstrual cycle, a sudden increase in the amount of vaginal discharge could be a symptom of one of these STDs. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause a burning sensation when you urinate.
Different types of infections may cause itching or a discharge in the vagina. These include:
- Infections spread during sexual contact. These include chlamydia, gonorrhea (GC), and trichomoniasis.
- Vaginal yeast infection, caused by a fungus.
- Normal bacteria that live in the vagina that overgrow, causing a gray discharge and fishy odor. This is called bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is not often spread through sexual contact.
Other causes of vaginal discharge and itching may be:
- Menopause and low estrogen levels, which may lead to vaginal dryness and other symptoms (Atrophic vaginitis).
- Forgotten tampon or foreign body, which may cause a foul odor.
- Chemicals found in detergents, fabric softeners, feminine sprays, ointments, creams, douches, and contraceptive foams or jellies or creams, which may irritate the vagina or the skin around the vagina
Less common causes include:
- Cancer of the cervix or vagina
- Skin conditions, such as desquamative vaginitis and lichen planus