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5 Stories About Vaginal Odor and Discharge

Written by Elizabeth Buescher, Gynecologist

Odorous vaginal discharge is one of the most common signs of vaginal infection (or vaginitis), and it is frequently accompanied by vaginal and/or vulval itching, swelling, redness, burning during urination, or pelvic pain. If you’ve ever dealt with vaginitis, then you certainly know just how bothersome these symptoms are. In addition to creating discomfort, they can also lower your self-confidence and self-esteem, and result in poor social interactions.

Hopefully, vaginal infections can be addressed with the right treatment, and they usually take little time to clear up. The good news is that you’re not alone – there are thousands of other women dealing with the same symptoms.
The material below answers your most common concerns in regard vaginal odor and discharge.

1. I have been experiencing a lot of yellow vaginal discharge with odor lately. It’s thick, yellowish, and looks just like cottage cheese, with clumps. There’s no itching or burning, and except for a bad fishy odor, I have no other symptoms. My doctor said it’s yeast infection and prescribed me Monistat, but it didn’t help. The amount has increased, and there’s more of this fishy smelling discharge after smell. What causes it? Is there anything wrong with me? Should I try a different medication?

AllDischarge.com Expert Answers:

Has your doctor taken any vaginal swabs to identify the cause of the abnormal discharge?

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) can cause symptoms that are pretty similar to yeast infection, such as white discharge with odor. However, the consistency tends to be a little thinner as compared to yeast infection, and the odor is usually stronger after sexual intercourse. Other symptoms, such as vaginal itching, burning during urination and discomfort, aren’t present. This seems to be your case since you say that, except for the odorous vaginal discharge, there are no other symptoms.

Bacterial vaginosis results from a change in the type of bacteria found in the vagina’s bacterial flora. Normally, bacteria of the Lactobacillus family naturally occur in the vaginal environment. They produce chemicals that maintain the vagina’s acidic pH, thus keeping infections at bay. Lifestyle changes, excessive cleaning, weak immunity and poor hygiene habits are the primary factors that can change the balance between good and bad bacteria, resulting in good bacteria being replaced by bad bacteria. This leads to smelly discharge that’s whitish to slightly yellow in color.

If you have three or more of the following criteria, then you’re most likely dealing with BV and not yeast infection:

  • foul smell coming from the vagina;
  • a pH test of the vagina that shows low acidity;
  • white, thin coating on the vaginal walls during the pelvic exam;
  • vaginal skin cells that are coated with bacteria when put under the microscope.

Treating bacterial vaginosis on time is critical to preventing potential consequences such as pelvic inflammatory disease, which involves the uterus, ovaries, or the tubes from the ovaries to the uterus (Fallopian tubes or oviducts). If left untreated, BV can cause scarring of the oviducts, resulting in infertility.

Ask your doctor to take another vaginal swab, but test it for bacterial vaginosis instead. Also, make sure to ask for a list of hygiene habits to apply while on treatment.

2. I have recently started to take birth control pills since I’m in a serious monogamous relationship. I’m sexually active but don’t plan to have children very soon. A few days ago I noticed a weird brown discharge with odor on the toilet paper. My period is two weeks away, so it can’t be its onset. Yesterday morning my undies had a large brownish spot, just as if there has been bleeding. It was still pretty wet, and had a slightly yeasty odor. I went to my doctor for a vaginal exam, but she told me that I have no infection. What causes fishy smelling discharge that’s brownish? Is there anything I should be concerned about?

AllDischarge.com Expert Answers:

Most women who start taking birth control pills experience breakthrough bleeding. This bleeding occurs at any time in your menstrual cycle other than when you’ve got your period. The amount of blood is usually minimal, and the bleeding lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours or days. However, there is nothing to be concerned about.

The presence of blood can cause your normal watery discharge to become pinkish or brownish. Also, you may notice that your underwear gets stained from time to time.
To rule out the possibility of a more serious condition of the reproductive organs, have a complete examination done. It should include a Pap smear, along with a pelvic examination. If the nature of the bleeding is different than described above, it may indicate the presence of a more concerning condition such as cervical, uterine or vaginal cancer.

If you are having a hard time managing breakthrough bleeding, consider wearing sanitary pads to soak up the blood and prevent staining your underpants or clothing. Avoid tampons and panty liners since they can interfere with the vagina’s environment and change the acidic pH. If needed, change your underwear more frequently. You should avoid exercising since it can cause an increase in the amount of blood coming out from the vagina.
Breakthrough bleeding goes away on its own in a couple of years, so don’t worry – you won’t have to deal with it forever!

3. Today I’m 33 weeks pregnant, and over the last couple of days, I have been experiencing a difference in the odor coming from my vagina. It’s not like my normal vaginal discharge odor, which is quite musky. It’s stronger and sharper, but not horrendously strong, and is noticeable specifically when I sit to pee. Plus, now I have constant discharge, and I can barely deal with it. I need to change my underwear several times a day to prevent wetting my clothing. My ob/gyn says that everything is alright, but I was just wondering if this is still a reason of concern? What does a fishy smell discharge mean?

AllDischarge.com Expert Answers:

It’s reassuring to know that your doctor says your discharge is normal. As long as there is no infection, everything is alright. Since you’re just 4 weeks away from delivery, the change in how your normal discharge smells usually is probably due to the hormonal changes that you’re now going through. You may be sweating a lot more than usually, and the combination of sweat, hormones and increased cervical mucus can make the fluids of your vagina smell much stronger and sharper. However, the odor shouldn’t be fishy or foul smelling. That would indicate the presence of an infection.

Another possibility would be the “show.” During pregnancy, a ball of mucus (also known as the cervical mucus plug) is sealing your cervix in order to protect the fetus against infections by preventing pathogens from traveling to the uterus. Towards the end of your pregnancy, the cervix dilates and softens, allowing the cervical mucus plug to come out intermittently in small gushes, flow evenly, or like a ball of mucus. Usually, the cervical mucus plug is blood-streaked, and it indicates that your body is getting ready for birth.

Sometimes, the mucus plug may come out when you’re on the loo, so you may not even notice it. This is called a “show” or “bloody show.” It may cause your normal clear vaginal discharge to smell differently. Also, constant discharge is normal at this point. The best way to deal with it is cleaning your genitals with plain water and no soap every other day. Even the mildest soap can interfere with the vaginal flora and cause BV, and you wouldn’t want this since your baby will arrive soon. Change your underwear frequently, wear just knickers (no thongs), wash your hands before and after using the toilet, and make sure to wipe correctly.

4. My discharge used to be clear and watery, sometimes whitish, but now it’s light green, and there’s a really bad odor coming from my vagina. It’s really smelly, and makes me feel so embarrassed when I go out with my friends. I don’t recall having any sex earlier than six months ago, and that was my ex boyfriend. I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary, except for going to the pool nearly every day. What’s with this light green discharge with odor? Can I have an infection?

AllDischarge.com Expert Answers:

If your white milky discharge went from normal to abnormal, you certainly have an infection. Greenish discharge usually indicated trichomoniasis, as it’s one of the few sexually transmitted diseases to make your discharge have this color. You say that you haven’t had sex, which leads me to thinking that you have come into contact with the infection differently. Since you have been going to the pool, perhaps you’ve recently acquired a new swimming suit. Do you recall sampling it in-store? If your genitals came into contact with the infected surface, then you could have easily contracted trichomoniasis.

Another possibility would be using an infected towel or cloth. Perhaps you have accidentally used someone else’s towel, or perhaps someone else has accidentally used yours. At the same time, you could have used a public restroom, which typically have been infected by another person.

At this point, you should definitely call your doctor and inform her about the unusual discharge that you’re experiencing. Make sure to tell her how your discharge used to be (e.g. clear or white), and how it is now. She will take a few samples of the discharge and put it under the microscope to see what infection you have (because it clearly is an infection).
If it’s not trichomoniasis, it can be gonorrhea instead. Bacterial vaginosis may also cause your normal discharge to become yellowish or slightly green. Whatever treatment you are prescribed, take it as instructed by your doctor and do regular checkups to make sure that everything is alright.

5. I have recently traveled to France, and spent one month there. When I came back, something quite embarrassing has started happening to me. I have some sort of fishy smelling discharge coming out of my vagina! It’s thick, looks like cottage cheese, and becomes slightly white if I wash down there. The smell is horrible, and makes me sick to the stomach. I haven’t had any sex over the last few months, so I don’t think it’s an STD. I tried removing it by washing constantly, but it keeps coming back. What are your tips on how to get rid of fishy discharge?

AllDischarge.com Expert Answers:

Traveling is one of the most common reasons why women have to deal with changes in the color, consistency and odor of their discharge. Whether it’s a nearby city or a country on another continent, traveling can mess with your normal cervical mucus – and it seems that this may be your case. What concerns me is the smell that you say you have. If it’s smelly, then you may have an infection. A sexually transmitted disease is very unlikely, but both yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis could be causing these symptoms.

Cottage cheese discharge is common to yeast infection – if it’s clumpy and feels more like lotion than cream when rubbed between fingers, it clearly is yeast infection. Bacterial vaginosis can also cause your normal discharge to be thicker, but significantly thinner than yeast infection. Both make your discharge smell very fishy – if the odor is more noticeable after sex, then it may be BV.

The only way to find out whether you have an infection is calling your doctor and making an appointment for a complete pelvic examination. She will take a few swabs and have the discharge tested for various pathogens until the cause is identified. Note that treating the infection is not optional! If left untreated, vaginal infections can lead to infertility and a number of complications that may occur during pregnancy. The sooner you have the issue investigated, the sooner you can start taking treatment.

It’s important to apply correct hygiene principles while treating the infection. Don’t be overly diligent about your personal hygiene – too much of a good thing isn’t as good after all. Your doctor should be able to provide you with some good tips about how to stay clean and fresh, what to do and not do, and more.