What exactly is vaginal discharge and is it normal?

Q: What exactly is vaginal discharge?

A: Having a small amount of vaginal discharge is normal, especially for young women of childbearing age. Regular everyday vaginal discharge is made up of normal vaginal secretions, skin cells and cervical mucous. The amount of discharge tends to vary with age, menstrual cycle, pregnancy and use of oral contraceptives.  Antibiotics, contraceptives, intercourse, douching and stress can change the quality of vaginal secretions and set you up for a variety of problems. Let’s talk about a couple of causes of abnormal vaginal secretions. Remember, this is just a general discussion; if you have any specific questions or symptoms, be sure to contact your health care provider.  

Yeast Infection (Vulvovaginal Candidiasis)

A yeast infection happens when the normal yeast that lives in the vagina overgrows. Some women get frequent yeast infections for no apparent reason, but it is more likely to happen if you are taking antibiotics, are pregnant, diabetic or stay hot and sweaty for a long time. The discharge caused by a yeast infection is typically white and has the consistency of cottage cheese. Other symptoms include itching, pain, swelling of the vulva or painful intercourse. Some yeast infections can be treated with over the counter medications, but they often require prescription medication for treatment.

Bacterial Vaginosis

This is a very common cause of vaginal discharge. It is usually caused by bacteria called Gardnerella vaginalis. There is some debate about whether or not this infection is sexually transmitted. While women with multiple sexual partners develop it at higher rate, women who aren’t sexually active may also develop the infection. The discharge of Bacterial Vaginosis is typically white, gray or yellow and is associated with a “fishy” odor that is worse after sex.  It too is associated with itching or burning, and a redness or swelling of the vagina or vulva. Bacterial vaginosis is treated with antibiotics.


This is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US. Symptoms include vaginal discharge that may be clear or cloudy, burning during urination, pain during sex, fever or pain in the abdomen. Unfortunately only about 30% of women with Chlamydia have symptoms. Untreated Chlamydia can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes which can lead to infertility or ectopic pregnancy in the future. Because so few infected women have symptoms, sexually active women are typically screened with their annual pap smear. Chlamydia infection is easily treated with antibiotics and it is also important that your sexual partners be treated as well. 


This is another very common sexually transmitted infection. Gonorrhea can infect the vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, mouth, throat and even the eyes. Gonorrhea can also spread throughout the body and cause arthritis. Symptoms can include vaginal discharge that is typically colored and thick, burning during urination, fever, sore throat, abdominal pain and joint pains. Like Chlamydia, it can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes and lead to infertility or ectopic pregnancy.  It is also easily treated with antibiotics. Again, your partner must be treated to prevent you from getting re-infected. 


This infection is caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. It is spread by unprotected sex with an infected partner. Symptoms may include a watery, greenish or yellowish bubbly discharge, an unpleasant odor, vaginal itching or swelling and burning during urination. This also can be treated with antibiotics and like other STIs your partner must be treated to prevent re-infection. 

So… a vaginal discharge can be completely normal, or a sign of a serious problem.  As you can see, the different causes of discharge will often look the same and cause similar symptoms.  If you develop a new discharge, or if you’ve always had one but it changes in any way, be sure to see your health care provider right away.  The staff at Student Health Services is always happy to help!

Angela Walker, Med IV (OSU COM)

Sheila Westendorf, MD (OSU SHS)