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How can I treat vaginal discharge and odor?

Dr. Peter T. Nassar, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

Vaginal discharge doesn’t always need to be treated, as it can be a normal part of your cycle. After a woman ovulates, the cervical mucus thickens as a natural way to prevent fertilization after a woman has already ovulated. This might cause discharge in the latter half of your cycle. 

But, discharge is not always normal. Usually there is a natural balance in the vagina between the bacteria and the yeast that live there. If something alters that balance, discharge can occur. For example, some antibiotics may kill off some bacteria, which could cause an imbalance. In this case, yeast overgrows, which causes a clumpy white discharge, usually called candida. This thick, white or clumpy discharge can irritate the vagina and make it itch. It can also make intercourse painful.

A yeast infection can be treated with some over-the-counter medicines, but we usually recommend that if they don't work, you should call your doctor. We usually assure patients that this is just a normal imbalance in the vagina. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, but if you're at risk, you should definitely be evaluated by your physician.

Douching, which we recommend against, can also disrupt the normal flora. It can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria, called bacterial vaginosis. It may cause yellow discharge with a little bit of odor, and that odor can worsen with intercourse.

Dr. Shelley C. Giebel, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

The vagina normally has a clear or white mucous discharge that can change in consistency during the menstrual cycle. However, if there is an odor or color, it is not a normal discharge and is most likely a sign of an infection. If the discharge is chronically watery or slimy this is not normal. At this point, medical treatment is necessary to treat the infection. Douching or aggressive cleaning will only make the discharge worse because you will be getting rid of the healthy bacteria in the process. 

Probiotics can prevent recurrent vaginal infections once you have received treatment from your doctor. So use probiotics to keep the vaginal secretions healthy.

Dr. Evelyn Minaya, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

Vaginal discharge and odor should always be evaluated by a physician. You should always rule out any sexually transmitted infection and try not to diagnose yourself because that could lead to drug resistance. Many people do not realize that it is very normal to have discharge in the vagina. Just like you have saliva in your mouth, the vagina is very similar. The vagina also has natural bacteria that live in a very controlled environment. Things like douching to try to get rid of the odor or "flush" out the discharge should not be done because you will destroy the healthy bacteria in the vagina.

A general rule of thumb I use for my patients is that if they have discharge with a foul odor, they probably have a bacterial infection. If they have a discharge that looks like cottage cheese, it’s probably yeast. If their discharge is yellow or green in color accompanied with pelvic pain or low-grade temperature, they probably have an STI.

Getting evaluated as soon as possible is the best treatment! Try not to use over-the-counter medication until you truly have a diagnosis.

Some at-home ways to treat vaginal discharge and odor include wearing cotton underwear and maintaining good hygiene.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.