Vaginal Discharge: Colors, Meanings and Symptoms

Every woman at some point in her life has noticed and sometimes been startled with discharge from the vagina that presents itself on the inside of their underwear.  Where does this discharge come from anyway and is it normal? Well, it depends on the color and odor and frequency of the discharge.    

The female genitalia have glands throughout that produce fluids through normal biologic processes that help to flush away bacteria and debris that may collect in the vaginal area.  The glands can produce various colors of discharge and the discharge may be yellow, white or even clear. The volume and odor can vary with the menstrual cycle, during sexual arousal or just normal physiologic functioning of the body. This discharge often occurs during the menstrual cycle and may increase in quantity during ovulation or pregnancy. Discharge may also increase during contraceptive use, hormone therapy as well as sexual arousal. So vaginal discharge, while it may seem unsettling and abnormal is often a common occurrence with women.  

While most discharge is normal in nature and varies according to the instances listed above, there are however abnormal forms of discharge that can occur. White, clear, or a slight yellow tinge to the discharge without excessive odor is usually not a cause for concern and as stated previously is a normal function of the body.  There are times however where the discharge can be abnormal discharge and, usually, this is a sign of infection or disease.  

Bacteria overgrowth in the vagina region is the most common cause of vaginal discharge that is not normal. A condition called Bacterial Vaginosis may develop which can result in a “fishy odor” to the discharge. Antibacterial cream or pills will help resolve the overgrowth of bacteria.

Trichomonas, along with other sexually transmitted infections can result in vaginal discharge that has a green or yellow tinge to it. Similar to Bacterial Vaginosis, the discharge will have an associated odor as well.  Other sexually transmitted diseases such as Gonorrhea and Chlamydia can both cause abnormal vaginal discharge.  

Urinary Tract Infections or UTIs can result when the bacteria from the nearby rectum enters the urinary tract of females through the urethra.  The treatment is through antibiotics.

Finally, Yeast infections can also result in vaginal discharge. Yeast infections occur when the good bacteria that normally reside in the vagina are removed. This can happen via excessive douching or taking oral antibiotics to combat other infections.  Yeast can also grow with high blood sugar levels, or from simple excessive sweating.

The above are some of the causes, let’s explore below what some of the different colors the vaginal discharge can present itself.

Thick, White Discharge

Thick, white discharge can represent normal discharge in women and can vary with hormonal therapy, sexual arousal and pregnancy. However, if the discharge is accompanied by other symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation, likely the discharge is associated with a yeast infection. Itching in the vaginal area is one of the most often associated symptoms with yeast infections. Yeast infections are caused by and overgrowth of fungus in the vagina. A common fungus that results in yeast infections is called Candida Albicans. If a female has recurring yeast infections, likely there may be an underlying medical reason and the patient should seek the advice of a medical doctor. Yeast infections cannot be prevented in all cases, but the chance of occurrence can be minimized. Wearing underwear that can wick away moisture such as those made with cotton or silk can help to minimize yeast infections as well as changing underwear often especially after prolonged exercise or instances of excessive sweat.  Women should avoid douching and feminine hygiene sprays as these will help to kill off the good bacteria that prevent the fungus from flourishing. Finally eating yogurt with bacterial cultures can help to replenish normal healthy bacteria.

Yellow Discharge

Yellow discharge is rarely ever normal and often it can be indicative of a bacterial infection or a  sexually transmitted disease. Chlamydia or Gonorrhea are common causes of yellow discharge in females. Antibiotics should be used to treat the infections for both partners. If only a single partner is treated, the infection is likely to return after sexual intercourse.

Brown or Bloody Discharge

Finding a brown/bloody discharge in underwear can often send women into a panic as they fear that there may be a disease or infection present in the body.  Typically, however, brown/bloody is oftentimes caused by irregular period cycles and is typically nothing to worry about as its often-left-over blood that is discharged by the body. Think of this as the uterus cleaning itself out of the old remaining blood in the body.  Blood when exposed air takes on a brownish hue which is why this discharge is often not a cause for concern. Other causes for brown discharge that typically do not require any treatment or concern include bleeding from periods, ovulation, implantation bleeding, hormonal birth control or women who are undergoing perimenopause

Brown discharge after vigorous sex can be a result of left-over blood if the cervix bleeds from damage from either the penis or sex toys. Minimizing the intensity during sex can help to eliminate or minimize brown discharge.  While most cases of brown discharge are not a cause for concern, discolored discharge may indicate a more serious condition such as cervical or ovarian cancer, an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage and in some instances a sexually transmitted disease. When in doubt if the discharge is normal or abnormal, it’s always best to see your doctor.

Green Discharge

While white or clear or even brown discharge may be normal, green discharge is never normal and often is indicative of an infection or a sexually transmitted disease. If you see green discharge, especially if it has a bad odor, is frothy, clumpy or very thick mucus, contact your doctor.  Green discharge occurs when the body reacts to pathogens with an inflammatory response. This may start out as a thin yellow discharge changing to a more thicker greener discharge that is foul-smelling. Trichomoniasis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, can all lead to green discharge. If you see green discharge leaking in your underwear, contact your doctor immediately as they can prescribe antibiotics to help clear up the infection. 

Women should be tested by a health care professional if the discharge is yellow, green or white.  The doctor by using the appropriate tests can determine what medication or treatment would be best for that particular condition.  Treatment options typically include antibiotics. 

Prevention is not possible in all cases simply because some discharge is a normal physiologic phenomenon that occurs in the female body.  Abnormal colors such as white, green or yellow should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible.