Normal changes in vaginal discharge can also occur with hormonal changes, and with certain medical conditions. Taking birth control pills with high doses of estrogen will stimulate the vaginal cells, causing secretions to increase. This is completely normal and not harmful, and will decrease if you stop taking the pill, or switch to a pill higher in progesterone and lower in estrogen. Additionally, women with diabetes often see changes in their discharge, due to higher blood sugar content. The extra sugar will begin to feed normal yeasts living inside the vagina, which will cause them to grow and lead to yeast infections. Such infections can be treated with over-the-counter remedies, and can be kept in check with strict sugar regimens.
What can go wrong?
There are many things that can change the color, smell, and consistency of your vaginal discharge. Most often, changes are caused by infections due to a buildup of microorganisms naturally present in healthy vaginas. Normally, the environment within the vagina has a low pH balance and is inhospitable to bacterial growth. This is because the secretions are actually slightly acidic to help prevent infections. However, certain triggers can upset the pH balance, making the vagina less acidic and allowing bacteria to grow. A buildup of bacteria leads to itchiness and discomfort, as well as abnormal vaginal discharge. Based on the color and consistency, you can start to think about what might be going on down there, which will help you make a decision about your next move.
Below is a list of common changes to the color of vaginal discharge and what they might signify.
Brown—every woman will have some amount of brown discharge around her period. This is simply the last of the menstrual blood, which appears brown when dry, being cleared out of the body. It is normal for a woman to experience some brown discharge for a day or two even after her period has ended, and does not require treatment. In rare cases, brown discharge can be a sign of cervical cancer, especially if it occurs sporadically throughout of the menstrual cycle and is accompanied by pelvic pain.
Thick and white—generally, thick, white discharge is a sign of a yeast infection. This discharge is generally odor-free and resembles cottage cheese. The yeast candida is a type of fungus that is a normal part of the healthy vaginal environment. Growth of the yeast is kept in check by bacteria that make the environment acidic. If the bacteria are disrupted, the vagina will become less acidic and yeast will begin to multiply, which leads to swelling and tenderness of the vaginal lips, or labia, and itchiness and burning in the vagina. Women with yeast infections will also find sexual intercourse painful. Generally, over-the-counter antifungal creams, like Vagisil, will be enough to combat these infections. However, complications may arise if a woman is pregnant, has a suppressed immune system due to medications or medical conditions like HIV, or has diabetes. If OTC treatment doesn’t work for you, see your doctor for more powerful medication to prevent complications.
White or gray and smelly—a very common bacterial infection is bacterial vaginosis (BV). The vagina houses both helpful and harmful bacteria, and while the harmful bacteria are generally kept in check, their numbers can sometimes increase and cause infections. Most of the time, women with BV will not see any symptoms of the infection, and it will clear up on its own. However, for women who do see symptoms of BV, the most common sign is grey or white discharge with a strong, fishy odor, which can get stronger after intercourse. Women may also experience a burning sensation during urination, and itchiness on the inside and outside of the vagina. Although BV can clear up without treatment, it is recommended that women with symptoms get treated to avoid complications. BV increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like HIV, herpes, chlamydia and gonorrhea, and increases the risk of passing them on to male sex partners. Additionally, BV in pregnant women can lead to preterm birth. In very rare cases, untreated BV can spread to the uterus and ovaries, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). If untreated, this complication can lead to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancies and infertility.
Yellow or green—thin, smelly, yellowish or greenish discharge could be a sign of a common, curable STD called trichomoniasis. This STD is caused by the spread of parasitic organisms, and affects both men and women. Although about 70% of people infected with trichomoniasis will never show any symptoms of the disease, women who do display symptoms will generally have a change in vaginal discharge, often accompanied by redness and swelling of the labia, itching and burning sensations in and around the vagina, and pain or discomfort during intercourse. Pregnant women with trichomoniasis are also at increased risk for preterm delivery. Untreated, it will often take months or years for the body to fight off the disease. Treatment is an oral antibiotic that will generally clear up the disease in a single dose, although it will not prevent reinfection. Women and their partners who have taken antibiotics for trichomoniasis are advised to abstain from sex for seven days following treatment to reduce the risk of immediate reinfection.
If you have unusual discharge or any other symptoms of vaginal infections, such as rash, pain, sores or swelling, or itchiness in or around the vagina, go to your doctor to assess the problem and discuss treatment options.
How can I prevent infections?
It is easy to reduce the risk of getting a vaginal infection, although they are certainly not foolproof. Even women with perfect hygiene can still get an infection, because they are not always triggered by the woman’s actions. However, the risk of getting an infection will decrease if certain steps are followed:
- Keep it clean. In the shower, always wash the outer lips of your vagina with soap and water. This will prevent external bacteria from building up and causing an infection. Whenever possible, avoid scented soaps, which introduce new chemicals to your vagina and can disrupt the pH balance.
- Never douche. Women who use douches to clean the insides of their vaginas run an increased risk of infection. Douching will clear the vagina of the helpful secretions and microorganisms it needs to maintain a good pH balance and keep the vagina healthy. This is also true of bubble baths, which, although they’re nice from time to time, can disrupt the vaginal environment if done too much.
- Wipe right. When using the bathroom, make sure to wipe from front to back so that bacteria and fecal matter are swept away from the vagina, decreasing the risk of infection.
- Use condoms. Especially with new or non-exclusive sex partners, condoms are a great way of preventing STDs and infections. If you aren’t sure you’re both clean, use a condom to prevent the spread of disease and keep your vagina healthy.
- Pee after sex. Bacterial and fungal infections can be caused by new or excessive microorganisms entering the vagina during intercourse. After sex, urination can flush out the extra organisms and keep the vagina’s environment the same as it was. Whenever possible, try to urinate within an hour after sex.
- Wear cotton. Wearing cotton underwear and changing them frequently will prevent bacteria from building up and causing infections.
With the right know-how, you can spot any infections that might come your way, so you can get faster, more effective treatment. Remember that the right kind of discharge is your friend, and do your best to keep your vagina clean and healthy to avoid all the funny colors and smells so you feel fresh and sexy every day.