4 causes of yellow discharge and when to see a doctor

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4 causes of yellow discharge and when to see a doctor
If your discharge is unusual and accompanied by a foul odor, reach out to your OB-GYN. Jessica Peterson/Getty Images
  • Normal vaginal discharge is odorless and clear or white in color.
  • Yellow discharge could be a sign of a condition like chlamydia, cervical cancer, or trichomoniasis.
  • If you have yellow vaginal discharge, schedule an appointment with an OB-GYN to determine the cause.

Vaginal discharge is normal and typically clear, white, and odorless, says Peace Nwegbo-Banks, MD, an OB-GYN at Serenity Women's Health & Med Spa.

However, discharge that is a different color like yellowish-green or accompanied by a fishy odor may be a sign of the following underlying conditions.

1. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection that occurs when bacteria travels from the vagina to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It is commonly caused by sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea, and is often accompanied by a yellow discharge. An estimated one million people are diagnosed with it each year in the US.

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In addition to yellow discharge, common symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease include:

  • Bleeding or pain during intercourse
  • Painful and frequent urination
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Fever, usually above 100℉

You can usually treat pelvic inflammatory disease with a 2-week-course of prescribed antibiotics. However, more severe cases may require hospitalization so you can receive intravenous treatment.

2. Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted bacterial disease that produces yellow discharge with a strong, foul odor. An estimated one in 20 women aged 14 to 24 has the infection.

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Additional symptoms of chlamydia include:

  • Burning during urination or sex
  • Rectal bleeding or pain
  • Bleeding between periods, aka spotting

You can treat chlamydia in about one week with prescribed antibiotics. Both men and women are susceptible to chlamydia, so you should avoid having intercourse until the infection is gone to avoid spreading it.

3. Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a parasite-induced sexually transmitted infection. Discharge may be white, green, yellow, or gray with a foul, fishy-smelling odor.

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Additional symptoms of trichomoniasis include:

  • Excess discharge
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Burning during urination
  • Soreness or swelling around the vagina
  • Itchiness around the vagina or on the inner thighs

You can treat trichomoniasis with a one-dose antibiotic although sometimes you may be prescribed a twice-daily version for a week.

4. Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). In 2021, an estimated 14,480 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. In this case, discharge may be watery, bloody, thick, yellow, and foul smell.

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Note: Most women who have regular pap smears do not need to suspect cervical cancer if they experience yellow discharge.

Additional symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Bleeding or pain during intercourse
  • Bleeding between periods

Treatment for cervical cancer may involve:

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  • Surgery to remove the cancer, cervix, or uterus
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Palliative care

Important: If you suspect you have cervical cancer, set up an appointment with your OB-GYN who will perform a pap smear to test for irregular cervix cells. Cervical cancer can also be prevented by the HPV vaccine.

When to see a doctor

It's always a good idea to visit a doctor if you're unsure what's causing abnormal discharge or discomfort.

A doctor can identify the underlying condition, prescribe any necessary medication, and provide a thorough treatment plan, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, an OB-GYN and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University Medical.

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Don't hesitate to get a second opinion from another doctor as well. In fact, a 2020 study found that 42% of women with vaginitis - such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis - received wrong prescriptions.

Insider's takeaway

Many conditions can cause yellow discharge, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and chlamydia. A majority of them are easy to treat with prescription antibiotics. So speak to your doctor if you think you have any of the discussed symptoms.

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