White Discharge: Its Causes and Treatments
White discharge from the vagina may be a normal condition, an early sign of pregnancy or an indication of infection.
White discharge, also known as leukorrhea, refers to colorless vaginal secretions that may accompany a wide array of conditions. In the same way that saliva moistens the mucous membranes of the mouth and tears bathe the eyes, vaginal fluids cleanse and provide lubrication for the organ. The composition of these fluids changes with hormonal fluctuations, menstrual cycles and age. They also vary from woman to woman, so what is normal for one may be signal an infection or imbalance for another.
Gynecologists recommend paying attention to normal, cyclical changes in discharge flow and consistency. By understanding the behavior of her healthy body, a woman can more readily recognize unusual symptoms.
Causes of White Discharge
For some women, leukorrhea is a normal part of the menstrual cycle; for others, thick or heavy leukorrhea may indicate infection, hormonal imbalances or pregnancy. It is important to note that while an opaque discharge may be associated with illness or pregnancy, it should not be taken as a definitive sign of these conditions.
Throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle, her body releases hormones that affect the type and consistency of her discharge. During ovulation at mid-cycle, most women notice clear discharge that resembles egg whites in color and texture. Shortly before and after menstruation, a milky discharge is common. Leukorrhea due to usual monthly cycles is not accompanied by itching, irritation or unpleasant odor; these symptoms indicate something other than normal hormonal changes.
Over time, the hormonal changes associated with pre-menopause and menopause can also produce leukorrhea. In the absence of other symptoms, the discharge may be normal; however, a woman who is concerned about a change in her usual discharge should always check with her doctor.
One of the earliest signs of pregnancy is a marked increase in the flow of vaginal discharge. Odorless, milky discharge by itself is not enough to assume a pregnancy, but women who believe they may be pregnant and note this change should take a home pregnancy test or arrange an appointment with a gynecologist soon.
Yeast infections, also known as candidiasis, are an overgrowth of the organisms usually present in the vagina. Although Candida albicans and other yeast species are normally kept in check, the fungi occasionally proliferate, causing itching, irritation and a lumpy, odorless discharge that resembles cottage cheese. Yeast infections are common and may happen when a woman takes antibiotics, becomes pregnant or begins a course of hormone therapy. More serious illnesses such as diabetes or immune system disorders can also contribute to frequent yeast infections.
Some bacterial infections are accompanied by increased discharge. In addition to leukorrhea, bacterial infections may cause itching, irritation and pelvic pain if left untreated. Some infections produce greenish or grayish discharge with a foul, acrid or fishy odor. Any woman can develop bacterial vaginosis; it is not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is more common when a woman has multiple partners.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
Some sexually transmitted diseases cause increased discharge that may be difficult to distinguish from the body’s usual flow. Discharge that has a yellow or green cast to it, has a frothy consistency or gives off an unpleasant or fish-like smell could be a symptom of an STD. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis are three of the most common STDs. All of them are treatable, but early intervention is essential in preventing pelvic inflammatory disease, a systemic infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries that can lead to infertility and increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy.
Symptoms Related to White Discharge
Leukorrhea is a symptom of some infections and conditions, but it is not a disorder itself. Any sudden or marked change in vaginal discharge should be discussed with a doctor, but for some women, occasional leukorrhea is normal. Only by becoming familiar with her body can a woman tell whether her discharge is normal or unusual for her.
Because it can be difficult to determine the cause of leukorrhea, it is best to see a doctor about any unusual discharge. A doctor can also check a woman’s overall health and detect any underlying causes of leukorrhea.
Many types of leukorrhea need no treatment. Women who experience significant discharge at certain points of their menstrual cycles may wear liners to shield clothing. For bacterial infections and STDs, treatment usually includes antibiotics. Yeast infections may be treated topically with prescription anti-fungal preparations or with over-the-counter products recommended by a doctor.
Three out of four women will experience the discomfort of a yeast infection at some point. Gynecologists recommend reducing the risk of yeast infections by avoiding tight-fitting pants, wearing cotton underwear and changing out of wet swimsuits or gym clothes quickly. When taking antibiotics, note any changes that could indicate the onset of a yeast infection. Recurring yeast infections may signal other health concerns; see a doctor for tests to rule out more serious conditions.
Bacterial vaginosis is more common in women who wipe from back to front; this practice could introduce intestinal bacteria into the vagina, disturbing the balance of the naturally occurring flora.
Condoms cannot prevent STDs completely, but they can reduce the likelihood of transmission. Doctors recommend always using condoms when engaging in sexual activity with a new partner or partners. Oil-based lubricants can cause latex condoms to deteriorate, so choose water-based lubricants to minimize potential exposure to STDs.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Any white discharge that is accompanied by other symptoms calls for a visit to the gynecologist. While most leukorrhea is not a reason for concern, some STDs can carry significant health risks.