If you see yellow vaginal discharge as you wipe or in your underwear, it is normal to be concerned. You wonder if it will clear up on its own or whether it’s time to call your doctor or visit your local sexual health clinic.
The good news is that yellow discharge is usually nothing to worry about. Yellow discharge is usually a small amount of blood mixed in with your cervical fluid or the result of small fluctuations in your hormonal balance.
However, in some circumstances it can be a sign of a more serious condition that may require medical attention. It is always best to speak to your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic if you are concerned about any abnormalities in your vaginal discharge.
LetsGetChecked is joined by Dr. Dominic Rowley, a specialist in sexual health and H.I.V (infectious diseases). In this article Dr. Rowley will answer the most common questions women have about yellow discharge.
- What is yellow vaginal discharge?
- Why might older women see yellow vaginal discharge?
- What common conditions cause yellow vaginal discharge?
- What else can cause yellow vaginal discharge?
- When should you see a doctor about yellow vaginal discharge?
- Are you worried that your discharge is a symptom of a sexually transmitted disease?
What Is Yellow Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge is a mix of vaginal secretions and cervical fluid that varies in colour and texture as your estrogen levels rise and fall throughout your menstrual cycle. Yellow discharge can be caused by a number of conditions, some completely normal, others that require medical attention.
Yellowish discharge is often caused by menstrual blood mixing with normal discharge before or after your period, but it can also be a sign of a hormonal imbalance or an infection.
“The presence of yellow discharge on its own isn’t an immediate cause for alarm,” says Dr. Rowley, “it’s the symptoms that accompany it that are the best indication of whether it is a cause for concern or not.”
Dr. Rowley has a list of questions women should ask themselves when yellow discharge appears:
- Is there itching or burning associated with it?
- Does it carry an unpleasant odor?
- Do you experience pain in your abdomen?
- Have you made drastic changes in your diet?
- Are you taking new prescription medications?
- Have you taken a smear test recently?
- Are you pregnant?
- Have you had unprotected sex recently?
- Has the discharge lasted for a prolonged period?
As a general rule, if you answer yes to any of the questions above or have any signs of discomfort, particularly in the pelvis, or any associated discomfort in your vagina, you should be examined by a physician. “Your doctor can let you know if your yellow discharge is completely normal”, says Dr. Rowley, “or if there’s a bigger issue that needs treatment”.
Why Might Older Women See Yellow Vaginal Discharge?
The onset of menopause brings about many changes in the body with vaginal discharge being no exception. Dr. Rowley explains that the hormonal changes associated with menopause can often cause yellow discharge.
“During menopause your vagina becomes less acidic and the walls become thinner putting you at a greater risk of infection.”
Dr. Rowley says that bacteria and other infective agents tend to grow and thrive in this type of environment resulting in infections that can cause your discharge to change color, including yellow.
Excluding standard biological changes, these types of infections can also be found in women who experience the menopause before the age of 40, also known as early menopause. Undergoing a hysterectomy, receiving radiation and/or hormonal therapy for cancer can also impact on vaginal discharge.
What common conditions cause yellow vaginal discharge?
It is normal to see yellowish discharge before your normal menstrual cycle. During this time the body produces more cervical fluid in preparation for ovulation. However, sometimes small amounts of blood mix with this fluid to give it a yellowish colour. If you notice discharge like this it is often no cause for concern and it will typically go away in a couple days.
Short Menstrual Cycle
The average menstrual cycle lasts between 25 and 30 days. Sometimes if you have a short menstrual cycle you may notice brownish-yellow discharge right after your period. Menstrual blood may give your discharge a brownish-yellow tint, which should go away by itself over a couple days.
Noticing yellow discharge by itself shouldn’t be a cause for concern. However, if you’re experiencing any foul order, pain or other unpleasant itching or burning sensations along with abnormal vaginal discharge then it is a sign you need to be examined by your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic.
Yellowish vaginal discharge can be the result of imbalances of the good and bad bacteria present in your vagina. Vaginal cavities contain bacteria called lactobacillus, which are designed to keep out other disease-causing bacteria and ensure that everything stays balanced. When the bad bacteria builds up it can lead to changes in your discharge and a condition known as bacterial vaginosis. You can contract bacterial vaginosis through sexual intercourse, but also as a result of hygiene habits and medication changes. If symptoms of bacterial vaginosis present with each period, it is recommended to visit your doctor. It is also recommended to wear loose cotton underwear.
Bacterial vaginosis may be caused by the use scented soaps and vaginal douches, waxing and laser therapies. The use of certain agents can disrupt the normal growth of bacteria in the vagina, causing discharge to appear yellow in color as your body chemistry responds to what it may perceive as a threat.
Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include a bad odor coming from the vagina after sex, itching or rashes around the vagina and pain and/or a burning sensation during and/or after urination. The resulting infection leaves the body vulnerable to contracting other STDs such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.
Antibiotics can change the balance of bacteria in your vagina and cause your discharge to turn a yellowish color. Antibiotics may cause thrush and candida while birth control pills and the coil may cause physiological changes in discharge. Adjusting the strength of your medication can help to alleviate these symptoms.
It is important to note is that it’s not possible to diagnose any of these issues without a thorough examination and further laboratory testing by a doctor.
“When speaking to your doctor, you need to be as clear as possible when explaining what symptoms you are noticing.”, Dr. Rowley explains.
“It is the presence of other symptoms that will provide your doctor with the crucial information they need to diagnose the cause of your abnormal discharge.”
What else can cause yellow vaginal discharge?
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
PID is an infection of the female reproductive organs typically contracted through sexual contact. It is possible, but not common, to contract pelvic inflammatory disease if the barrier of the cervix is damaged after giving birth, during a miscarriage, or while having an abortion. The underlying cause of PID is often an untreated sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea or chlamydia. Pelvic inflammatory disease can lead to the development of scar tissue, which puts you at risk of having multiple abscesses grow along your fallopian tubes. Pelvic inflammatory disease often has no symptoms, but some women do experience abnormal vaginal discharge (yellow, green brown) and abdominal or pelvic pain. If left untreated pelvic inflammatory disease can cause permanent damage to the reproductive organs and lead to ectopic pregnancies, infertility, and ovarian cysts.
Trichomoniasis is a diseased caused by the contraction of parasites, known as trichomonas vaginalis, during sexual contact with someone who has the disease. For most people trichomoniasis is symptomless. 70% of people infected with trichomoniasis will not display any signs of the disease. However, those that do experience symptoms often notice yellowish-green foul fishy smelling discharge within 5 to 28 days of contracting trichomoniasis. A green colour is also common if you have contracted trichomoniasis.
LetsGetChecked’s STD test data shows that abnormal vaginal discharge is the most common symptom reported by our patients who have tested positive for trichomoniasis (75%).
Other common symptoms patients experience are itching or rashes around the vagina (50%), pain or discomfort whilst urinating (25%), or bleeding between periods (25%). Pelvic pain may also occur but is not as common.
Although trichomoniasis is symptomless, it still poses a risk to your health. Trichomoniasis leaves you at a higher risk of contracting more serious STDs like HIV. Pregnant women infected with trichomoniasis have an increased risk of early delivery and newborns may have a low birth weight.
Cervicitis is inflammation of the cervix. Cervicitis develops after contracting an STD like trichomoniasis or chlamydia. Non-STD sources include trauma or an IUD. Symptoms of cervicitis include grayish or pale yellow vaginal discharge, blood in your discharge, a burning sensation while urinating or bleeding between regular periods. If you suspect that you have cervicitis, it is recommended that you visit your doctor immediately so that they can diagnose and treat the cervicitis.
Similarly to cervicitis which is an inflammation of the cervix, vulvovaginitis is an inflammation of the outer vulva and vagina. It can be caused by a host of conditions including STD’s, bacteria, parasites, yeast, harmful chemicals in soaps and deodorants and poor hygiene. During vulvovaginitis noticing a light yellow discharge prior to the menstrual cycle is quite common. It also causes dryness, irritation and redness in and around the vagina, and a burning sensation when urinating.
You can’t determine whether you’re suffering from any of the conditions listed here from symptoms alone so it is alway best to talk to a doctor so they can give you a proper diagnosis and treatment for the cause of yellow discharge.
When should you see a doctor about yellow discharge?
Dr. Rowley recommends seeing a doctor if you experience any sort of discomfort alongside abnormal discharge. He stresses that it’s especially important to do so if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Pain in your pelvis and lower abdomen.
- Any type of bad smell associated with the discharge.
- Abnormal bleeding or unusually heavy periods.
- Pain or bleeding during sexual intercourse.
- Burning sensation while urinating.
- Fever or chills.
- A recent history of unprotected sex.
- If you’re currently pregnant or suspect you may be.
Once you’ve found the cause of your condition, it’s important to follow the treatment plan as set out by your doctor. If you have reservations about what you doctor recommends, take the time to get a second opinion of another doctor qualified to do so.
As we saw, just because you aren’t displaying any additional symptoms doesn’t mean that you don’t have a STD. If you have a reason to suspect that you might have contracted a STD then you should consider using an at home STD test that will test for the most common types of STDs.
If you have any other concerns about vaginal discharge, then be sure to watch Dr Rowley’s video where he explains what your vaginal discharge can tell you about your health:
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Read: What Is Chlamydia?
Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley