Medical News Today: What causes white vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of the menstrual cycle and color and consistency change throughout the month. However, some types of discharge indicate an underlying condition.

Many women experience thick, white discharge before a period. This is considered healthy unless the discharge is lumpy or accompanied by a strong odor.

Read on to discover more about changes in discharge throughout the menstrual cycle, and why white discharge can appear before a period.

White discharge before a period

Birth control pill which may cause white discharge before period
Using the birth control pill may lead to an increase in white vaginal discharge.

Normal vaginal discharge is called leukorrhea. It comprises fluid and bacteria from the cells in the vagina. Most women produce just under a teaspoon, or 4 milliliters, of white or clear discharge every day.

Discharge before a period tends to be cloudy or white, due to the increased presence of progesterone, a hormone involved in both the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

In other phases of the cycle, when the body has higher levels of estrogen, vaginal discharge tends to be clear and watery.

Discharge helps with lubrication and the removal of bacteria from the vagina. It can also be a convenient way for women to track their menstrual cycle.


What causes white discharge?

The following factors may result in white discharge.

Normal reproductive function

White discharge is common at the beginning and end of menstruation. It is usually thin and stretchy, and should not be accompanied by itching or an odor.

Hormonal birth control

Using these types of birth control, including the birth control pill, can lead to more discharge, because hormone levels may be affected. The increase is not usually a cause for concern unless there are any other symptoms.

Yeast infection

Also known as candidiasis, yeast infections are a common complaint among women. It is estimated that nearly 75 percent of women will experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime.

Discharge associated with a yeast infection tends to resemble cottage cheese — it is thick, white, and lumpy. Other symptoms include itching and burning in and around the vagina.

Bacterial vaginosis

Around 30 percent of women of childbearing age have bacterial vaginosis (BV), an infection caused by bacterial imbalances in the vagina.

BV is linked to douching and having more than one sexual partner. The discharge tends to be grayish-white and has a fishy odor.

Sexually transmitted infections

Several sexually transmitted infections (STIs) cause changes in vaginal discharge. The infections can include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis.

Discharge caused by chlamydia or gonorrhea may be closer to yellow than white, although not everyone has symptoms. Trichomoniasis can cause a fishy odor, yellow-green discharge, and itching.


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White discharge and pregnancy

In some cases, a pregnant woman will experience an increase in discharge just before her period is due. This can be one of the earliest signs of pregnancy.

It is not always easy to distinguish this type of discharge from normal discharge, but it may be thicker in texture.


Vaginal discharge during the menstrual cycle

Ovulation marked on a diary
There may be more discharge before ovulation than after.

Vaginal discharge changes throughout the cycle. A person can usually see differences at each stage, including:

  • At ovulation. Discharge is typically clear, stretchy, and watery. A thin consistency helps sperm travel to the egg. Before ovulation, there is usually more discharge, possibly up to 30 times the usual amount.
  • After ovulation. Higher levels of progesterone cause discharge to appear white. This type of discharge may last for up to 14 days. It may be thick and sticky, but there will be less than there was during ovulation.
  • Just before a period. Discharge may be white with a yellowish tinge.
  • Just after a period. There may be some brown discharge, made up of old blood leaving the vagina. After this, 3 to 4 days may pass without discharge.

Other types of discharge

Discharge that is not white may be:

  • Clear. Clear discharge is usually normal. There may be more discharge following exercise or during sexual arousal. Ovulation or pregnancy can also be cause discharge.
  • Gray. Grayish discharge suggests BV. Women with gray discharge should see a doctor, as treatment may be necessary.
  • Green or yellow. While light yellow discharge is no cause for concern, dark yellow or green mucus can indicate an infection. However, some individuals report yellow discharge after trying new foods or supplements.
  • Pink. Pink discharge may occur at the beginning of a period or after intercourse. Women with pink discharge not related to their periods should see a doctor.
  • Red or brown. This coloration is normal immediately before or after a period. However, red discharge at other times of the cycle may suggest an infection.

It is important to note that hormonal changes, which can be triggered by birth control or pregnancy, can cause light spotting.


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When to see a doctor

Vaginal discharge tends to change in color and consistency throughout the menstrual cycle. Discharge that appears before a period is usually white.

However, if a certain type of discharge persists throughout the month, it may be a good idea to see a doctor.

Consult a doctor if any of the following symptoms are present:

  • lumpy or frothy discharge
  • pain or burning in or around the vagina
  • rash
  • redness
  • sores
  • strong- or foul-smelling discharge
  • swelling

Treatment

Normal vaginal discharge does not require any treatment. Abnormal discharge and discharge accompanied by pain or itching may be managed with medication, home remedies, or a combination of both.

Medications

In the event of infection, a doctor will prescribe medication or recommend an over-the-counter product.

Yeast infections, for example, are treated with antifungal drugs that can be inserted into the vagina or taken orally.

Antibiotics are usually prescribed for BV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis.

Home remedies

Kefir drink and fungus
Probiotic-rich foods, such as kefir, may be recommended to encourage healthy vaginal flora.

The following lifestyle changes can ensure a healthy vaginal environment:

  • Practice good hygiene. Keep the outer genital area clean and dry to avoid vaginal odors and bacteria.
  • Wear breathable cotton underwear and avoid pantyhose. Tight and synthetic clothing can increase the risk of vaginal infections.
  • Use a panty liner for comfort. On days when vaginal discharge is heavy — such as during ovulation — a panty liner can absorb excess moisture that may cause discomfort or irritation.
  • Wipe from front to back. After using the toilet, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria spreading from the anus to the vagina.
  • Avoid using tampons and douching. Both can bring new microbes into the vagina, which may increase the risk of infection.
  • Do not use perfumed products around or in the vagina. It is not recommended to use scented wipes, vaginal deodorants, or bubble bath, as these can cause irritation.
  • Take probiotics. Some research suggests that probiotic supplements may encourage a healthy vaginal flora. Certain probiotic strains are marketed for women’s health. Eating probiotic-rich foods, such as natural yogurt and kefir, may also help.
  • Use barrier contraception. Using condoms can reduce the risk of contracting an STI.


Outlook

White discharge, especially when it appears before a period, is usually a normal part of the menstrual cycle.

However, most women will experience a vaginal infection at some point, so take note of any unusual changes in discharge. The majority of these infections can be managed, especially with prompt medical intervention.

Plenty of home remedies and lifestyle changes can prevent and treat vaginal infections.

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