As with any cavity in the body, discharge from the vagina occurs for various reasons that are normal and may even play a beneficial role. This discharge is not always obvious. Women may only notice it during ovulation, before and just after menstruation, but there is a constant discharge occurring within the vagina. However, there are times where this vaginal discharge is abnormal and may be very heavy.
Quantity of Vaginal Discharge
The primary purpose of vaginal discharge is to keep the vaginal cavity moist. There are times where the quantity of this discharge increase, like during intercourse when the discharge is necessary for lubrication. There may also be variations in the quantity of discharge during the course of the menstrual cycle and also during pregnancy. Therefore there is no specific quantity of vaginal discharge that can be considered.
There may even be variations among individual females. In other words some women may experience more discharge than others and it is considered normal. However, when the vaginal discharge is causing excessive moisture and soiling the underwear repeatedly, then it may be considered to be abnormal and heavy. This has to be investigated to differentiate physiological (normal but excessive) from pathological (excessive due to disease) causes.
Normal Causes of Excessive Discharge
There are several glands in the vagina that are responsible for the fluid secretions to keep it moist. In addition, the mucuous membrane linings are further kept moist by tiny mucus-secreting cells. Collectively, this ensures that there is sufficient vaginal discharge to prevent drying. As mentioned, there may be an increase in discharge before and during intercourse, ovulation, before menstruation and with pregnancy.
In addition, excess vaginal discharge may also occur for several weeks after childbirth, when breastfeeding, during emotional stress, puberty and with using oral contraceptives. Sometimes excess vaginal discharge may be seen in newborn female babies and this is not considered abnormal. In these cases it is a result of the maternal estrogen in the baby’s body. It decreases over days and weeks and the vaginal discharge subsides in the baby.
Read more on vaginal discharge in pregnancy.
Abnormal Causes of Excessive Discharge
Excessive vaginal discharge which occurs with various different diseases is usually associated with inflammation of the vaginal tissues, including glands. Sometimes this discharge includes blood or pus rather than just an excess of that natural fluids. At other times there may be a disturbance in hormone levels or even secretory growths that may increase the overall discharge.
There may be a host of other signs and symptoms apart from an abnormal vaginal discharge. This includes:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Foul vaginal odor or discharge
- Pelvic or lower abdominal pain
- Burning and/or itching of the vagina
These signs and symptoms may overlap in a number of different cause of vaginal discharge. It is important to seek professional medical advice to diagnose the cause, as the signs and symptoms alone may not be a reliable indicator of the underlying condition. Diagnostic tests may be necessary.
Read more on abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Infections of the vagina, external genitalia and other female reproductive organs are a common cause of excessive vaginal discharge. These infections may be cause by viruses, bacteria, protozoa (single-celled parasites) and fungi such as yeasts. Some of these infections may be transmitted with sexual contact.
For example, a discharge is seen with bacterial vaginosis, vaginal candidiasis (thrush), gonorrhea and chlamydia. In addition, a discharge may be seen with urinary tract infections. However, it is important to note that the discharge in these cases is from the urethra (urethral discharge) and therefore not a vaginal discharge.
Allergic reactions affecting the vagina may also lead to an increased vaginal discharge. This may be seen when certain materials/substances come into contact with the vagina. This includes latex (condoms), substances use for lubrication or douching, and even soaps and detergents. Although uncommon, an allergy to semen can also occur and then lead to symptoms like a heavy discharge.
Injury to the vagina leads to inflammation and this in turn will result in increase discharge. There are many ways through which the vagina can become injured. Intercourse is one example, especially if there is inadequate lubrication. Sexual abuse also needs to be considered.
Insertion of objects into the vagina and even the fingers (particularly with long or jagged fingernails), surgery and even gynecological diagnostic procedures may also cause mechanical injury. Radiation therapy to the pelvis may cause electromagnetic injury to the vagina.
Certain materials or substances may not cause an allergic reaction as described above but may still cause irritation of the vagina. This is more likely to be seen with tampons, toilet paper and condoms. Even vaginal douching can lead to irritation of the vagina in addition to changing the micro-environment which increases the risk of thrush.
Usually these materials are not a problem for most women. However, if retained within the vagina then it may cause irritation and even lead to an allergic reaction with profuse vaginal discharge. Sometimes an IUD (intra-uterine device) may also be responsible for symptoms like increased vaginal discharge.
Profuse vaginal discharge may also be seen with certain growths in the female reproductive tract. This can includes benign (non-cancerous) tumors like cervical polyps or malignant (cancerous) tumors, including cancer of the vagina, cervix, uterus or endometerium. With cancers, the vaginal discharge may be bloody although this is not unique to cancers only.
Although inceased vaginal discharge is a normal part of a health pregnancy, there are also some pregnancy-related problems where discharge may become profuse. Usually there are other symptoms also present such as lower abdominal and pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding and so on.This may include a miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, placenta previa and abruption placentae.
It is also important that vaginal discharge is not mistaken for ‘water breaking’ as the latter is amniotic fluid. Always consult with a medical professional when there is concern about vaginal discharge during pregnancy. Never wait for other symptoms like abnormal vaginal bleeding or pain to arise as there are serious conditions in pregnancy that be relatively silent (asymptomatic) at the outset.