Leukorrhea is the medical term for vaginal discharge, which is common in most females of every age. Despite its commonality, leukorrhea can also be symptomatic of infection or a condition that requires medical treatment. Unusual or significant changes, particularly in color and odor, should be investigated by a doctor or gynecologist.
Normal vaginal discharge is typically clear or white, with a thin consistency. It may have an odor but is not typically described as foul or offensive. Several parts of the female reproductive system produce discharge, including the cervix and the ovaries, and changes in amount and consistency throughout the menstrual cycle are normal.
The presentation of abnormal or pathological leukorrhea depends on the underlying condition or infection. Symptoms include gray, green, yellow, or blood-tinged discharge. It may also be thicker in consistency and carry a fishy or otherwise foul odor. Discharge that occurs as a result of an infection is typically accompanied by itching and burning.
A woman may experience daily vaginal discharge with no cause for concern. This is a product of hormones, particularly estrogen. Infection most often causes abnormal leukorrhea, such as bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection. Disruption of the healthy balance of flora in the vagina is the most likely cause of such infections, though sexually transmitted infections can also be to blame. Using soaps, douches, or other products containing irritating perfumes or dyes may trigger an imbalance in vaginal flora. Poor hygience, too, is a potential risk factor. Having multiple sexual partners and engaging in unprotected sex increases the risk for contracting an STI.
The effects of changing estrogen levels on vaginal discharge are especially evident during ovulation when the egg is released from the ovary and into the uterus. Increased discharge or minor color changes — such as white to clear — are also common in pregnant and post-menopausal women.
The most commonly occurring type of vaginal infection is bacterial vaginosis, which is caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the vagina that overwhelms the healthy bacteria, creating a disturbance in vaginal flora. Bacterial vaginosis produces gray, white, or green discharge and has a fishy odor.
Yeast infections are caused by the overgrowth of the fungus candida albicans in the vagina. Similar to bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections occur when the balance of healthy yeast is disrupted and the fungus is allowed to grow unrestrained. Yeast infections produce leukorrhea that is white and thick, often described as similar to cottage cheese in appearance.
Several sexually transmitted infections are linked to abnormal vaginal discharge, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. In the case of the latter, sexual intercourse transmits the trichomoniasis parasite. Leukorrhea produced as a result of the trichomoniasis infection is green, yellow, or gray, frothy, and foul-smelling.
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive system caused by the spread of an untreated STI into the uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes. PDI may result in the permanent scarring of a woman's reproductive organs. The condition produces discharge that is heavier than normal and foul-smelling.
Familiarity with what normal discharge looks like is key to identifying a potential vaginal infection. If discharge changes unexpectedly, particularly to yellow, green, or gray, or develops a foul odor, prompt medical attention is required. This is particularly true of discharge accompanied by other symptoms of infection, including itching, burning, and painful urination.
Antibiotics and antifungals treat bacterial and fungal vaginal infections. These medications clear the infection and relieve accompanying symptoms, including abnormal discharge. It is important to take measures to prevent future infections by improving hygiene practices, avoiding irritating soaps, and practicing safe sex. Normal leukorrhea does not require treatment. If normal discharge is heavy or uncomfortable, a woman may choose to use panty liners or pads.
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