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6 Gynecological Symptoms That Shouldn't Be Ignored

While some vaginal issues are totally normal, others need medical attention. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Medically reviewed in August 2022

Updated on August 25, 2022

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Everyone experiences occasional discomfort in places they don’t like to discuss, and it may seem easy to convince yourself that certain issues are simply part of being a woman. But when pain, bloating, bleeding, or other symptoms—especially in and around your vagina and throughout the pelvic region—become persistent, they could be a sign of something more serious.

Read on to learn about some common gynecological symptoms—and when they may require medical attention.

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Bloating and Pelvic Pain

Occasional bloating may be the result of constipation, drinking carbonated beverages, or developing gas after eating certain foods. But if you’re unable to rule out diet or a minor intestinal problem as the source of your woes, you should make an appointment to see a healthcare provider (HCP). 

That’s because bloating can sometimes be a symptom of an ovarian tumor or ovarian cancer, says Renee Cotter, MD, an OBGYN with West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in West Hills, California.

You should also speak with an HCP if you’re experiencing bloating with pelvic pain. This dangerous duo could signal another gynecological problem or a gastrointestinal issue such as diverticulitis, Dr. Cotter adds.

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Abnormal Bleeding

A single episode of spotting doesn’t necessarily spell trouble, but if it’s a “heavy, persistent, prolonged, or painful problem” you should have it checked out, says Cotter. Your HCP may perform an ultrasound and a Pap test, look for polyps in the cervix and uterus, and run lab tests to check for hormone issues.

“Any type of postmenopausal bleeding is a concern,” Cotter advises, so if you are past menopause, you should make an appointment with an HCP as soon as possible. “Our first concern is to rule out cancer,” she says. Your HCP will examine you for cervical and endometrial (uterine) cancer, as well as endometrial/cervical polyps and other irregularities.

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Discharge

“All women should have some discharge,” says Cotter, and it varies based on your age and method of birth control.

  • If you are not on birth control, discharge should have “the consistency of a raw egg white” before and at ovulation and become “thick, smooth, and white” after ovulation, she notes.
  • If you are on combination oral contraceptives (containing both estrogen and a progestin), you will likely have a thick, white discharge all month long.
  • If you have an IUD, you'll have a slightly heavier discharge.
  • If you are menopausal and not on hormone replacement therapy, you may experience “atrophic vaginitis, which causes a yellow-mustardy discharge” or little discharge at all.

Talk to your HCP if discharge is an abnormal color or smells, or if it is painful or itchy.

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Frequent Urination

“Frequent urination is a common complaint in women,” says Cotter. Although drinking too many beverages with caffeine or alcohol may cause women to use the bathroom more often, overactive bladder (OAB) could also be the cause.

When someone has OAB, their urge to go is so strong that they may have an accident before reaching the bathroom. Stimuli like the sound of running water or a shower may also cause accidents, Cotter says.

On the other hand, constantly feeling the need to pee could indicate a urinary tract infection (UTI), while an increase in frequency may be a sign of diabetes or fibroids. Bottom line: Talk to your HCP if you have the urge to go more often than usual.

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Itching

A persistent itch in the vaginal and vulvar area may indicate a yeast infection. Common triggers include certain antibiotics, eating too much sugar, and hormonal conditions. Yeast infections may cause a “cottage cheese-like discharge that is usually white,” says Cotter, although sometimes it may be watery and clear. Luckily, over-the-counter medications or a prescribed, single-dose pill (fluconazole) can typically treat the infection.

Itching accompanied by a burning sensation could signal bacterial vaginosis, which causes a thin white or gray discharge that has a strong fishy odor, particularly after sex, and should be examined by your HCP.

Some other causes of itching may include the following:

  • Skin conditions such as contact dermatitis, caused by soaps or fabrics that irritate your skin
  • Bartholin glands cysts, which appear in the glands near the opening of the vagina that help you stay lubricated during sexual activity
  • Vulvodynia, which is pain and itching around the vagina and vulva
  • Genitourinary symptoms of menopause, which include the thinning of the lining of the walls of the vagina, caused by dropping levels of estrogen
  • Sexually-transmitted infections, such as trichomoniasis (which is also often marked by yellow-gray or green discharge with a fishy odor)
  • Sweating caused by tight-fitted clothing

If you have vaginal or vulvar itching and have previously been diagnosed with HPV, you should see an HCP; it could be a symptom of vulvar cancer.

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Pelvic Pain

Sure, cramps are common during your period, but persistent or severe pelvic pain could be a symptom of several conditions, including endometriosis. This occurs when the tissue that forms the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus. That extra lining may lead to growths and cysts on your ovaries, or you may develop scar tissue.

Other reasons you may have pelvic pain include adenomyosis (when tissue lining the uterus grows into the uterine wall), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ovarian cysts, or uterine fibroids, Cotter says. Ovarian and uterine cancer may also be to blame.

Above all, visit your HCP right away if you're bleeding heavily, if you have sudden, extreme pain along with foul-smelling vaginal discharge or fever, or if you’re more than a week late. Having pain before your period or after your period has ended warrants a consultation, as well. A pelvic exam, ultrasound, hysteroscopy, or biopsy can help pinpoint the trigger. Hormonal treatments can help improve symptoms if bleeding is a result of ovulation issues, fibroids, or endometriosis.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Moffitt Cancer Center. Why Does Ovarian Cancer Cause Bloating? Accessed August 14, 2022.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Bleeding After Menopause Could Be a Problem. Here's What to Know. Updated October 2020.
Cleveland Clinic. Cervical Mucus. Last reviewed October 14, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. Estrogen And Progestin Oral Contraceptives (Oral Route). Last updated February 1, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Vaginal atrophy. September 17, 2021.
Office on Women’s Health. Vaginal yeast infections. Page last updated: February 22, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bacterial Vaginosis – CDC Basic Fact Sheet. Page last reviewed: January 5, 2022.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Disorders of the Vulva: Common Causes of Vulvar Pain, Burning, and Itching. Last reviewed November 2020.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vaginitis. Frequently Asked Questions. Last reviewed July 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. Sexual Health: Genital Itching. Last reviewed January 7, 2021.
American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Vulvar Cancers and Pre-Cancers. Last Revised: January 16, 2018.
Mayo Clinic. Adenomyosis. June 18, 2022.

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