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Vaginal Discharge

Alternate Names

  • discharge from the vagina
  • Female reproductive organs

Definition

Vaginal discharge is a fluid coming from the vagina.

What is going on in the body?

The vagina normally discharges a small amount of fluid that is clear, cloudy, or whitish. There is usually more discharge around the time the egg is released from the woman's ovary (ovulation). Many factors can affect the delicate balance of normal organisms within the vagina.
Some of these may cause an increase in discharge and perhaps a change in odor or thickness of the discharge. These include:
  • antibiotics
  • changes in estrogen levels that occur throughout a menstrual cycle, with pregnancy and breastfeeding and after menopause
  • douching
  • sexual intercourse
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
One third of all women have symptoms of abnormal vaginal discharge at some point during their lives.
Vaginitis, a swelling, redness, and irritation in the vagina, can occasionally be caused by:
  • harsh detergents
  • spermicides in foams, jellies, and creams
  • condoms and diaphragms
  • feminine hygiene products, such as perfumed sprays and powders
  • nonabsorbent clothing, such as nylon pantyhose
  • tampons
However, most vaginitis is caused by an infection.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

The causes of vaginal discharge include:
  • yeast infection, caused by the Candida fungus
  • bacterial vaginosis, caused by a change in the normal bacteria in the vagina
  • Trichomonas vaginitis, caused by a parasite that is spread through sex
  • atrophic vaginitis, an irritation of the vagina that causes dryness or burning
Other possible causes of vaginitis include:
  • a foreign body in the vagina, such as a forgotten tampon
  • gonorrhea
  • genital herpes
  • Chlamydia
  • cervicitis
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Prevention of vaginal discharge depends on the cause. Candida infections can be decreased by avoiding a humid environment around the genital area. This can be done by wearing loose-fitting and absorbent clothing. Women should practice good hygiene methods, such as bathing, showering, wiping front to back after urinating, and frequent handwashing.
Practicing safer sex with a condom, or preferably, limiting sex to one lifelong relationship with a faithful partner, should reduce the chances of getting STDs. Hormone replacement therapy can prevent atrophic vaginitis caused by low levels of estrogen.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Tests that may be done during a pelvic exam include:
  • culture of the vaginal discharge or cervix
  • a lab analysis of the vaginal discharge
  • pH analysis of the vaginal discharge, to check the acidity

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Normal vaginal discharge does not need treatment. Feminine hygiene products and douching should not be used. These products can mask the symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease as well as force the bacteria higher into the pelvic organs. They can also cause a contact dermatitis to the vulva and vaginal tissues.
With proper treatment, there are usually no long-term effects. However, certain causes may not be completely curable. Some of these include herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. If a severe STD has spread to the pelvic organs, pelvic may occur. This can lead to long-term pain and infertility.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Normal vaginal discharge poses no risk to others. If there is an underlying infection, such as a sexually transmitted disease, the infection may be highly contagious through sexual contact.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment of vaginal discharge depends on the particular cause of the condition. Treatment may include the following, in the form of pills or as a cream:
  • antibacterial medication
  • antifungal medication
  • antiviral medication
  • antihistamines to relieve itching
  • cortisone to relieve itching
  • estrogen or hormone therapy

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects depend on the particular agent used. Antibiotic pills may cause stomach upset allergic reactions, or a yeast infection. Some creams may cause skin irritation.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Most antibiotic treatment is used for 3 to 7 days. Estrogen treatment is usually continued indefinitely. If a sexually transmitted disease has been found, the woman's sexual partner or partners will also need evaluation and possibly treatment.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Understanding Your Body, Felicia Stewart, Felicia Guest, Gary Stewart, and Robert Hatcher, 1987

Maternity and Gynecological Care, The Nurse and the Family, Irene Bobak, Margaret Jensen, Marianne Zalar, Mosby Co., 1989

Professional Guide to Signs and Symptoms, Springhouse, 1997

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