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What does white vaginal discharge mean?

The information provided herein does not constitute an expert or medical advice, nor intended to replace such advice.

Women Health
STD Tests

Most women are used to the presence of some white vaginal discharge, but you may have wondered whether this finding is always normal. The truth is that, while white discharge can be a sign of good reproductive health, it can also signal that something is wrong with your health.

Read on to learn more about white vaginal discharge, its causes, and how it can be treated.

Causes of white vaginal discharge

In some cases, white vaginal discharge can be completely normal; whereas in others, it can be a sign that something is wrong. The best way to distinguish between these situations is to pay attention to any changes to your vaginal discharge that deviate from normal, and the presence of any accompanying and uncomfortable symptoms.

Normal discharge

Normal vaginal discharge typically varies throughout your menstrual cycle. As you approach ovulation, your discharge will become clear, stretchy, with an egg-white consistency. 

However, white vaginal discharge is perfectly normal at other times during your cycle. Normal white discharge can be thick, doesn’t have a significant odour, and isn’t accompanied by any concerning symptoms.

This discharge contains a combination of dead skin cells, bacteria, and natural lubrication. You can expect this type of discharge to appear before and after your fertile days.

As long as your vaginal white discharge isn’t accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching or irritation, it’s probably just a normal part of your cycle. This discharge helps your vagina stay clean, lubricated, and healthy.

Leukorrhea, or a milky white vaginal discharge, can also be a sign of early pregnancy. 

Yeast infection

Candidiasis, or yeast infections, are common vaginal infections. They’re so common, in fact, that research shows that up to 75 percent of all women will experience a bout of candidiasis at least once in their lives.

Yeast infections are caused by a fungus called Candida spp. This fungus is a normal part of your vaginal microbiota, but it can grow out of control in certain situations.

The discharge that results from a yeast infection shares some similarities with normal white vaginal discharge, but there are certain characteristics that can help you distinguish between the two.

Vaginal discharge caused by candidiasis is typically white, thick, and its consistency resembles cottage cheese. This discharge can be odourless, but it can also have a tangy or sour smell. 

Symptoms of candidiasis can also include:

  • Genital irritation, swelling, or redness
  • Painful urination
  • Painful intercourse
  • Small cracks on your genital skin

Risk factors for candidiasis include:

  • Recent use of antibiotics
  • Use of hormonal contraceptives
  • Diabetes or high blood sugar
  • Immunosuppression
  • Pregnancy
  • Vaginal douching

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When to see a doctor

As long as your white vaginal discharge isn’t accompanied by other symptoms — such as itching or an unusual odour —, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.

Some women produce more vaginal discharge than others, but you can always address any concerns with your gynecologist during your next check-up.

But if you’re experiencing white vaginal discharge along with other symptoms, such as genital itching, irritation, or painful urination, it’s always a good idea to seek medical advice.

Your healthcare provider will probably perform a physical examination and take your medical history. In some cases, this will be enough to arrive at a diagnosis. In other instances, your doctor may need to take a sample of the discharge to run additional tests. 

Treatment for white vaginal discharge

If your white vaginal discharge is caused by a yeast infection, you will probably be relieved to know that these infections are quite easy to treat. Your doctor could prescribe one of several anti-fungal medications that have been shown to be safe and effective against candidiasis.

In most cases, your doctor will likely prescribe a vaginal cream as a first line of treatment. Some of these creams only need to be applied once, while others require several days of treatment.

It’s usually advised that these creams be applied at night, right before you go to bed. This way, the medication will have enough time to act while you rest to prevent it from leaking. Vaginal creams that can be used to treat yeast infections include:

  • Clotrimazole
  • Miconazole
  • Nystatin
  • Tioconazole

You may be prescribed an oral antifungal medication if you’re experiencing recurring yeast infections, or have tried vaginal creams unsuccessfully. The most commonly used oral antifungal is called fluconazole.

In many cases, you will only need to take a single dose of fluconazole to resolve the infection, but you should always follow your doctor’s instructions.

Women who suffer from recurring yeast infections may also need further evaluation to determine the reason for this issue. Since risk factors for candidiasis include undiagnosed medical conditions, your doctor could order different lab tests to rule them out. Fortunately, managing underlying conditions can greatly reduce your risk of developing yeast infections in the future.

Written by Andrea Pinto on June 18, 2021

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