Discharge is a common experience for women, and this fluid, which is secreted from the glands of the cervix, can give you insight into your health.
Some changes in the color, texture, or odor of vaginal discharge are normal and can be attributed to phases of the menstrual cycle.
However, some changes may indicate a health problem, especially if they’re accompanied by bothersome symptoms like pain or itching.
In particular, thick white discharge often is a sign of an infection that requires treatment.
In this article, I’ll explain the possible causes of thick white discharge, what this discharge means, and possible treatments.
I’ll also cover how to prevent abnormal vaginal discharge, what normal discharge is like, and finally, when to see a doctor.
Thick White Discharge Causes
The vagina naturally houses yeast and bacteria, and most of the time, this creates a healthy environment.
But when something upsets this balance and triggers an overgrowth of either yeast or bacteria, it leads to unpleasant symptoms that require treatment.
In the case of an overgrowth of candida fungus, you get a yeast infection.
These infections often cause thick, clumpy white discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
People with yeast infections may also experience itching and burning in the genital area as well as pain while peeing or having sex.
Yeast infections vs bacterial vaginosis
An overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina can lead to an infection called bacterial vaginosis.
An overgrowth of yeast causes a yeast infection, otherwise known as vaginal candidiasis.
While the two share some similarities, they are also very different.
One major difference is that a yeast infection is caused by fungus, while bacterial vaginosis stems from bacteria. This means that the treatments will be different.
Secondly, these infections produce different types of discharge.
Yeast infections usually produce white, thick discharge, while bacterial vaginosis can cause thin and milky gray or yellow vaginal discharge.
Yeast infections rarely have a foul odor, but bacterial vaginosis usually causes a distinguishable fishy smell.
Other possible causes
Thick vaginal discharge doesn’t always indicate that there is an infection.
For example, when you’re not ovulating, your body may produce thick, sticky vaginal fluid that looks white.
This thicker discharge can prevent sperm from reaching the uterus and prevent cervical infections.
Birth control or pregnancy can cause changes in vaginal discharge, as can certain medical conditions, such as diabetes.
What Thick White Discharge Means
Thick white vaginal discharge accompanied by symptoms like itching and burning could be a yeast infection.
In other cases, thick white discharge can indicate normal changes in hormones due to your menstrual cycle, birth control, or pregnancy.
Other possible consistencies, colors, and odors
Vaginal discharge can be other colors, some of which occur due to health problems such as infections.
Understanding what these changes mean can help you seek medical advice and treatment when you need it.
- Clear: Clear discharge, more often than not, is healthy. You may have an increase in clear discharge if you’re pregnant or ovulating, or if you’re sexually excited.
- White: White discharge can be normal, but if it’s thick and clumpy, it could be a yeast infection.
- Gray: Gray, milky vaginal discharge that has a foul, fishy smell often indicates bacterial vaginosis.
- Pink or red: Blood can mix with discharge, giving it a pink or red hue. This can occur with implantation bleeding (bleeding that occurs when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterus) or in the days before or after your period. Pink or red discharge can also occur when the cervix is irritated or inflamed due to infection or cancer.
- Yellow: Bacterial vaginosis or a sexually transmitted infection called trichomoniasis can both cause yellow, fishy-smelling discharge.
- Green: Green-colored discharge usually happens due to an infection, including sexually transmitted infections.
Though uncomfortable, yeast infections are treatable.
Antifungal medications are the best way to treat yeast infections, because they stave off fungal growth.
There are two types of antifungal treatment for mild to moderate yeast infections:
- Short-course vaginal therapy: Available over the counter or via prescription, these creams, ointments, and suppositories include miconazole (Monistat 3) and terconazole. Most require 3-7 days of treatment.
- Single-dose oral medication: A one-time oral dose of fluconazole (Diflucan) can treat a yeast infection. If you have severe symptoms, your doctor might suggest taking two doses a few days apart.
If you have persistent or severe yeast infection symptoms, your medical provider might recommend a longer course of vaginal therapy or several doses of oral medication.
Some people try home remedies for a yeast infection, such as dietary changes or supplements.
None of these alternative therapies have been proven in studies to effectively treat yeast infections.
Talk to your medical provider if you are interested in using any of them along with medication.
Prevention of Abnormal Discharge
Abnormal discharge can stem from lots of causes, from hygiene issues to diet to sexual activity and even underlying medical infections.
To help prevent thick, white discharge from a yeast infection:
- Wear underwear with a cotton crotch. Also be sure underwear isn’t too tight.
- Change out of wet clothes, such as swimsuits or sweaty workout clothing, as soon as possible.
- Do not douche or clean your vaginal area aggressively. Doing so can disrupt the vaginal flora and contribute to yeast infections and abnormal discharge. Your vagina maintains a careful internal balance, so just a light rinse with water and mild soap is enough to keep the area clean and healthy
- Avoid scented feminine products, such as tampons or pads, which can irritate the vagina.
- If you have diabetes, follow your doctor’s instructions for managing your blood sugar. Diabetes is linked with higher rates of yeast infections.
- Always use condoms when you have sex with a new partner.
- If possible, limit your number of sex partners.
- Get screened for STIs regularly.
What Is Normal Discharge Like
Healthy discharge can be different colors and consistencies.
It can also change throughout your menstrual cycle and if you take birth control or become pregnant.
Most typically, healthy vaginal discharge is clear or white.
During ovulation, your discharge may become clear and sticky.
If you’re approaching your period, your discharge may be pink or reddish; after your period, it may become brown.
It’s also possible for normal vaginal discharge to be light yellow.
When to See a Medical Provider
See a healthcare provider anytime you’re concerned about the color, texture, or smell of your vaginal discharge.
Vaginal infections can pose additional risk if you’re pregnant, so see a provider right away if you notice changes in discharge when you’re expecting.
You should also seek medical care right away if you have an infection or suspect an infection and have any of the following symptoms:
These signs may indicate a severe or spreading infection, which requires immediate medical attention.
How K Health Can Help
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Vaginal Itching and Discharge: Adult and Adolescent. (2021).