Your body undergoes so many changes during pregnancy. Some you know are coming and expect. Others may be a surprise, and may leave you wondering if they’re normal or something you should be concerned about. Is a change in vaginal discharge normal during pregnancy? In most cases, it is. Let’s find out what’s normal, why there are changes, and how to know if there’s a problem.
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About Vaginal Discharge
Before we talk about vaginal discharge during pregnancy, let’s talk about its presence and purpose in your nonpregnant body. Vaginal discharge, called leukorrhea, is a completely normal part of a healthy body. There are glands inside your vagina and cervix that make a small amount of fluid. As this fluid flows out of the vagina, it keeps it healthy and clean (1). Leukorrhea carries out old cells that used to line the vagina, as well as things like bacteria and blood remaining from your period.
Vaginal discharge is usually clear or a milky color, may feel slippery or sticky, and it usually has either no smell or a slight odor that is not foul smelling. You may have noticed that your vaginal discharge changes in different parts of your menstrual cycle. This is because, like nearly everything we talk about here, it’s affected by hormones. As your hormones shift throughout your menstrual cycle, your vaginal discharge fluctuates in amount, color, thickness, and texture. You’ll also notice a change in vaginal discharge during pregnancy, ovulation, breastfeeding, or when you’re sexually aroused.
Vaginal Discharge During Pregnancy
We’ve previously discussed bleeding and spotting, so now let’s take a look at non-blood vaginal discharge during pregnancy. Leukorrhea serves the same purpose in your pregnant body as it does when you’re not pregnant — cleansing the vagina. You may notice an increase in discharge, and this is completely normal (2). Doctors believe that the increase is due to hormonal changes and increased blood flow to the skin and muscles around the vagina (2, 3).
While an increase in discharge is normal, it should still be clear or white and not have a bad smell. Some women notice that their vaginal discharge is thicker during pregnancy, which again, is normal. Also normal is a slight change in the smell. This change in odor may be due to a change in the pH of the vagina, or it may simply be the fact that a pregnant woman’s sense of smell is heightened and she feels like there’s an increase in odor. Either way, it should not be foul smelling.
When to Call the Doctor — Abnormal Vaginal Discharge During Pregnancy
Abnormal vaginal discharge my signal the onset of an infection. You should tell your doctor or midwife if your vaginal discharge during pregnancy, or any other time, has any of the following symptoms:
- Bad odor
- Changed from its normal color to yellow or greenish
- Changed from its normal texture to one that is lumpy or like cottage cheese
- Accompanied by pain, itching, irritation, or burning in the vaginal area
A change in vaginal discharge during pregnancy, or outside of pregnancy, may be caused by a bacterial infection, called bacterial vaginosis or BV. This may cause discharge to have a fishy odor, to be yellow or green in color, and may cause itching or irritation outside of the vagina.
BV happens because of an imbalance of the bacteria that grows in the vagina. Bacteria in the vagina is normal, and in fact, the good bacteria that is supposed to live there fights off other, harmful types of bacteria. BV happens when you have too much of a certain type of bacterial. A bacterial infection can cause complications such as premature rupture of membranes or premature birth, so it should be treated as soon as possible (3).
Another reason for a change in vaginal discharge during pregnancy may be a yeast infection. This can cause a thick, white curd-like discharge, and pain or itching around the vagina.
Yeast infections happen when more than the normal amount of yeast is present in the vagina. While yeast is usually kept balanced by bacteria, that balance can be thrown off. (You may have heard that yeast infections are more common after taking antibiotics, and that’s because the antibiotics may kill off too many of the bacteria that typically keep the yeast in check.) Yeast infections are also more common during pregnancy because of chemical changes in the vagina. A yeast infection doesn’t pose a risk to your pregnancy, but the symptoms can be uncomfortable.
Both bacterial infections and yeast infections are easy to treat. A bacterial infection can be safely treated with antibiotics. A yeast infection is treated with either the oral medication fluconazole (brand name Diflucan) or with a vaginal suppository or cream (3). While over-the-counter medications are available, don’t try to treat infections yourself. Your doctor can do a simple swab so he or she knows for sure what’s going on. This ensures that you get the right treatment.
Some women may be tempted to try douching to clean the vagina if there are uncomfortable symptoms or abnormal discharge. Doctors urge women not to douche at any time, including during pregnancy. The vagina is made to clean itself, and you do not want to throw off its delicate balance by introducing anything, including douche. The medications prescribed or recommended by your healthcare provider will be the best way to restore the proper balance without causing any harm.
What Can I Do?
As long as it doesn’t change color or odor, vaginal discharge during pregnancy isn’t a problem. Still, the increase in amount of discharge may be mildly uncomfortable. If you have heavy discharge, try wearing thin sanitary pads. Also, avoid wearing things like nylon undergarments and pantyhose, opting instead for cotton which is more breathable. Between these two changes, you should be able to stay dry and comfortable!
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- American Academy of Family Physicians. (2019, July 30). Vaginal Discharge – Causes and Prevention. https://familydoctor.org/condition/vaginal-discharge/
- Glade, B.C., Schuler, J. (2011). Your Pregnancy Week by Week, 7th edition. First Da Capo Press
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2010). Your Pregnancy and Childbirth Month to Month, 5th edition