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What is vaginal discharge?

Vagina is an important part of a female reproductive system. It is a muscular canal lined with nerves and mucous membrane of the female genital tract. It connects the uterus and cervix to the outside body, allowing for menstruation, intercourse and childbirth.

Vaginal Discharge is a regular and normal occurrence from the female reproductive system. It is also known as the natural cleaning process of human body, as fluids made by glands inside the vagina and cervix eliminate dead cells and bacteria. This is the natural way to clean and maintain hygiene. Vaginal discharge may vary in amount and colour from whitish to clear, sticky to watery, with an odour.

What are the types of vaginal discharge?

There are different types of vaginal discharge, which are categorized on the basis of color and consistency. Most of the time vaginal discharge are normal, however in some cases it may indicate an underlying condition which may require medical treatment, for treating infection.

  • White: White colored discharge is normal during the beginning or the end of the menstrual cycle. If there is an itching, pain with a thick discharge and change in the consistency or appearance similar to cottage cheese like, this indicates medical attention due to yeast infection (candidiasis). It is more common in diabetics.
  • Clear and Watery: It is common and perfectly normal discharge which can occur any time of the month.
  • Clear and Sticky (Gluey): Another normal type of discharge, however, it indicates ovulation.

Abnormal vaginal discharge indicates in change of vagina’s normal balance affecting the smell, color or discharge texture.

  • Brown and Bloody: If it occurs during the menstrual cycle it is considered to be as normal. Brown colored discharge instead of red during the end of the menstrual cycle is very common. Some may experience a small amount of discharge between periods also called spotting. In some scenarios, brown or bloody discharge between the periods can be a sign of endometrial or cervical cancer.
  • Cloudy or Yellow: It is another rare type of discharge which indicates Gonorrhoea
  • Frothy or Greenish with a fishy odour: Another rare discharge which shows the signs of Trichomoniasis infection.
  • Vaginitis: It is an inflammation of the vagina which results in discharge, itching and pain. Reduced estrogen level after menopause, infection and some skin disorders may be the reason of vaginitis.
  • Other Causes: Usage of objects like adult tampons, toilet paper and objects used for sexual arousal might cause abnormal vaginal discharge. Antibiotics, douching, feminine hygiene spray and certain bubble soap may disturb balance of a healthy vagina.

What are the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge?

  • Yeast Infection: Small amount of yeast fungus is usually found and is a sign of a healthy vagina, however if the amount increases, it causes Yeast infection. Three out of four women will get this infection once in a lifetime. It is caused by pregnancy, diabetes, medication, lubricants or spermicides or weakened immune system.
  • Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease which causes pain in genital tract. People with multiple sexual partners or unprotected intercourse are at high risk to get affected by Gonorrhoea.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease: PID is an infection and usually occurs when sexually transmitted bacteria spread from vagina to the uterus and reproductive organs. It has minimal symptoms or signs, hence treatment may not be required, unless there is an issue with getting pregnant or chronic pelvic or low back pain.
  • Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis is another type of sexually transmitted infection which is curable and may not be harmful in most cases. It is caused by one-celled parasite called Trichomoniasis, affecting more women than men. It is seen more in older women and usually has symptoms like greenish vaginal discharge with fishy odour.
  • Human Papillomavirus: HPV infection is spread by sexual contact, which if not treated may lead to cervical cancer. Usually there may be no symptoms but this type of cancer can easily be screened with Pap smears and HPV testing.

What are the symptoms of vaginal discharge?

Symptoms of vaginal discharge are dependent on observing the discharge’s color, odour and its texture. There are few other symptoms listed below:

How to prevent or avoid abnormal vaginal discharge?

 Abnormal discharge can be prevented by following steps:

  • While using the toilet paper, always wipe from front to back. As it will prevent getting the bacteria into vagina from rectal area.
  • Avoid wearing tight pants, shorts, bikini, etc. for long duration. Wearing cotton pants during the day which are breathable and sleeping without underpants at night.
  • Hygiene, bathing or showering daily and pat your genital area making it dry.
  • The latex in condoms and diaphragms and the sperm-killing gels that are used for birth control may be irritating for some women. If this is irritating, please visit your doctor for other types of birth control.
  • Avoiding intercourse as it may infect the partner.

It is suggested to visit doctors at regular intervals, so any underlying condition can be treated on priority.

How is vaginal discharge diagnosed?

Sharing your medical history with your doctor is mandatory, as it will help the doctor understand the severity of the condition. It is very important to get regular pelvic exam and Pap smear. There should be transparency between patient and doctor for better treatment.

  • Pelvic Examination: Doctors examines the genitals for signs of infection by placing an instrument (speculum).
  • Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to create images of reproductive system to rectify infections.
  • Laparoscopy: Doctors inserts a thin, lighted instrument through a tiny incision in abdomen to view pelvic organs.
  • Vinegar Solution Test: A vinegar solution is used to HPV-infected genital areas which turns them white. It helps in identifying and see flat lesions.
  • DNA Test: This test, conducted on cells from your cervix, can recognize the DNA of the high-risk varieties of HPV that have been linked to genital cancers. It’s recommended for women who are 30 years and older in addition to the Pap test.  

How is vaginal discharge treated?

Most of the abnormal vaginal discharge are treated with antibiotics and medications, which take around few weeks for the entire treatment.

What are the complications of vaginal discharge?

Fungal thrush is uncommon for normal adults. However, if the immune system is weak, due to HIV, diabetes, persistent steroid use, or cancer treatment, thrush can lead to life-threatening systemic infections. If yeast is untreated, it may enter your bloodstream and cause invasive candidiasis which may spread to different parts of the body. Infection of adnexa, endometrium, skin and bartholin glands are few other complications observed in abnormal vaginal discharge.

How to care for abnormal discharge?

Vagina is a sensitive and important part of female reproductive system, hence it needs special care on daily basis.

  • When showering or bathing, wash vagina with warm water and mild or unscented soap. Make sure the water isn’t too hot and remember to rinse off all the soap.
  • Rinse completely and pat dry your vagina with a soft dry towel.
  • While on your period, change your tampon/pad regularly. The vagina cleanses itself naturally. The cells in the vagina keep it at a normal pH so you should never douche or use any sprays in your vagina (unless your health care provider prescribes it).
  • Wash all new underwear before you wear it and then use a small amount of mild unscented detergent for routine washing.
  • Wear underwear with a cotton crotch. Avoid synthetic panties.
  • Avoid wearing tight fitted clothes as it may be uncomfortable and restricts blood circulation.

It is highly recommended to visit doctors, if any abnormal vaginal discharge is observed.

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