What does yellow discharge mean?
The vagina or birth canal is a part of the female reproductive system. It is a muscular canal that connects the uterus with the exterior. It has its defense mechanism to protect itself from infections transmitted from the adjacent anus or during sexual intercourse.
The vaginal discharge is the fluid secreted from the uterus, cervix (neck of the uterus) and vagina. This discharge may be normal or abnormal. The normal vaginal discharge contains good bacteria and the shed vaginal cells. This discharge keeps the vagina healthy, provides lubrication and protects against infection and irritation.
The normal fluid may range from whitish and sticky to clear and watery depending on the stage of your reproductive (menstrual) cycle. Other conditions such as contraceptive pills, pregnancy, delivery of a baby or an antibiotic course can alter the smell and color of the normal vaginal fluid. The normal vaginal fluid does not cause itching and irritation and has a mild odor. The discharge may become more noticeable at the mid-menstrual cycle, under stress and during sexual activity.
A thick yellow vaginal discharge may point to vaginitis (infection of the vagina). Depending on the personal history (recent sexual activity, history of urinary infection, blood-stained spots, lower abdominal pain, fever, rashes and recent surgery), your doctor can diagnose whether the discharge is serious.
- Young sexually active woman: Yellow discharge in a young sexually active woman that is accompanied by intense itching and has curdy texture points to a fungal infection called candidiasis. If the discharge is greyish yellow, with bad odor and stuck to the vaginal lips, it is mostly bacterial vaginosis. Another parasitic infection called trichomoniasis is characterized by thick yellow discharge with fishy smell and intense burning while passing urine and itching and pain during intercourse. If your vaginal discharge is accompanied by spotting or cramps, your doctor may suspect a uterine infection or disease of the cervix (neck of the womb). If you have had unprotected intercourse and develop yellow discharge, there is a chance of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea and chlamydia that need prompt diagnosis and treatment. Finally, a tumor of the vagina, womb or cervix can also cause white discharge.
- Pregnant woman: A pregnant woman will have increased vaginal discharge in pregnancy. However, if the discharge is copious enough that a woman develops wet undergarments or it causes discomfort, alert your doctor immediately. Similarly, white discharge post pregnancy called the lochia is normal up to six to eight weeks post-delivery.
- Prepubertal child: The most common causes of yellowish vaginal discharge in an adolescent girl are constipation, worm infestation and poor hygiene. Allergic reaction to bubble baths, deodorant soaps, tight leotards and jeans are also the culprits for white discharge. A foreign body inside the vagina is an important cause that must be diagnosed or ruled out in time. Measures such as a good diet, deworming, wearing nightgowns that allow the air to circulate and double rinsing the underwear after washing to avoid residual irritants may help reduce the frequency of discharge. Avoid using fabric softeners for underwear and swimsuits. Skirts and loose-fitting pants allow the air to circulate better and may be used instead of tight jeans. Always supervise the toilet hygiene in a child younger than six years of age. Emphasize wiping front-to-back after bowel movements. Allowing the child to soak in a tub of clean warm water (no soap) for 10 to 15 minutes daily may help relieve itching and redness. Rinse the genital area well and gently pat dry.
- Postmenopausal woman: If your discharge develops after a gynecologic surgery such as hysterectomy, it may be due to a vaginal fistula (an abnormal passage between the uterus and bladder or rectum). A condition called cervical ectropion in which the cells inside the cervix grow on the outer side may also cause discharge. Other possibilities are a vaginal infection or, rarely, tumor of the vagina or cervix.