Is Vaginal Discharge Normal?

Learn the top 5 causes of vaginal discharge and when you should worry about it.

Sanaz Majd, MD
3-minute read

Vaginal discharge is unpleasant, uncomfortable, and perhaps even a tad annoying at times. No one seems to want to talk about it. And some women seem quite embarrassed about having it. But believe it or not, it’s a common symptom that many female patients ask me about. In fact, I see it in the office almost every day! 

Though it might be a little gross, it’s not necessarily abnormal. In fact, some women have what is called a physiologic vaginal discharge all the time, during their entire lives. And this is okay, and it is very normal. It can vary with the menstrual cycle, and may even worsen during ovulation or pregnancy. It can also develop during sexual arousal, or with hormonal contraceptive use. 

What is Vaginal Discharge Anyway?

The female genital system has numerous glands that help to clear out the bacteria and debris that it encounters down there. These glands keep us clean by producing a fluid to wash away all the grit and grime. This discharge can be clear, yellow, or white, and its odor may change with the menstrual cycle.

But sometimes discharge can be a sign of something that needs further testing and treatment. If its color, texture, amount, or associated symptoms are uncomfortable, we do need to consider various causes of vaginal discharge.

What Can Cause an Abnormal Vaginal Discharge?

Here are the top five causes:

  • Yeast: One sign that your vaginal discharge may be abnormal is if you experience any signs of itching. Yeast tends to grow when the good bacteria that normally resides in the vagina is killed off, and this can happen with douching or taking oral antibiotics. Yeast can also grow when there are higher levels of blood sugar, and diabetics tend to get them a little more often. But simple moisture, like from sweat, can trigger a yeast infection. The discharge is often described as having a “cottage-cheese-like” texture to it. Using over the counter vaginal clotrimazole cream for seven days often does the trick for most women.

  • Bacteria: If there is an overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in the female genital system, a condition called Bacterial Vaginosis can develop. That is the most common cause of abnormal vaginal discharge. Women tend to describe a rather “fishy odor” to the discharge. The treatment is a special prescription antibacterial that can be taken as a pill or as a vaginal cream.

  • Urinary Tract Infections: If you experience pain or burning with urination, a vaginal discharge can signify a urinary tract infection (UTI). This can happen when bacteria from the nearby rectum enters through the entrance of the urinary system at the urethra (a thin tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body), which sits at the top of the vaginal opening. A simple urine test can confirm this, and antibiotics can cure it.

  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI): If you are sexually active, it’s important to get tested for two of the most common STI’s, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, which can both cause an abnormal vaginal discharge. This can be tested during your routine pap smear exam, or via a urine sample. Special antibiotics designed to combat these two bacteria can cure this, but make sure you treat your partners too (or else you’ll get it right back).

  • Trichomonas: There is also a special subset of STI’s that can produce a characteristic frothy green/yellow type of vaginal discharge. Many women also report having a “fishy odor,” just like those with Bacterial Vaginosis do. A special test called a wet mount, where the clinician takes a sample of your vaginal discharge and looks at it under the microscope, can diagnose this type of infection that is treatable. But again, like other STI’s, your sexual partners need to be treated at the same time.

How to Prevent Abnormal Vaginal Discharge?

As I mentioned, some discharge is totally normal and can’t be prevented, but here are my quick and dirty tips for preventing abnormal discharge:

  • Avoid douching and panty liners

  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics

  • If you are a diabetic, make sure to work with your doctor to control your sugars

  • Go commando at nighttime, and let the vagina air out when you can

  • After using the bathroom, wipe front to back (not the other way around)

  •  Use a condom if you are sexually active to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. All it takes is once without a condom to contract a virus or bacteria.

When to See Your Doctor About a Discharge?

Please seek medical attention if you experience any:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Fevers

  • Burning with urination

  • Vaginal itching that does not resolve with over the counter Clotrimazole intra-vaginal cream for 7 days

  • Pain with intercourse

  • Vaginal bleeding with intercourse

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.