A lot of the teenage experience is confusing and even alarming — especially when it comes to bodily changes. If you’re a teen who’s starting to notice some new things happening down there, you might be freaking out a little.
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Try not to worry. There are lots of possible explanations for vaginal discharge. Some of them are perfectly normal and healthy, while others signify treatable problems.
Is it normal for a teen to have vaginal discharge?
If you have a vagina, you’re bound to experience vaginal discharge at some point or another. It’s a normal part of your body’s many processes and productions — and it can start when you’re a teen or preteen, even if you haven’t yet started your period or had sex.
Why? Well, think of discharge as your vagina’s version of cleaning house. Your uterus, cervix and vagina all create fluid and cells that need to be discarded. Some of this mixture disintegrates before it leaves your body, and some of it makes its way through your vagina and into your underwear.
Everyone’s body is different, so you might experience a lot of vaginal discharge or just a little bit. “For some people, it’s normal to have some discharge every day, while other people don’t have much of it at all,” says Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD.
The amount and type of discharge you produce can also change over time, even in the same person.
“The vagina has both good and bad bacteria — literally thousands and thousands of healthy and unhealthy bacteria,” Dr. Goje explains. “Sometimes, the composition of your vagina’s natural flora changes, and that’s enough to also change the consistency of your vaginal discharge.”
Can discharge be a sign that something’s wrong?
Vaginal discharge comes in a variety of colors, though healthy discharge is usually somewhere between clear and milky white. It can vary in texture, too, from thin and watery to thick or gummy.
But other colors, like yellow, green, gray or brown, can be a sign of health concerns, as can some textures, like when you have discharge that’s thick and chunky.
“When adolescent girls ask me about vaginal discharge, it’s often the result of three things: a sexually transmitted infection, a yeast infection or an overgrowth of normal vaginal bacteria,” says adolescent medicine specialist Ellen Rome, MD, MPH.
Here’s what you need to know about each of the options, plus a few others.
A sexually transmitted infection
“If you’re sexually active, your vaginal discharge could be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection,” Dr. Goje says, “and it’s important to know that you don’t have to have sexual intercourse to contract an STI. You can also get them from anal sex, oral sex and genital touching.”
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, don’t always cause symptoms, but ones that commonly cause changes in vaginal discharge are:
- Chlamydia: White, yellow or gray discharge that’s particularly smelly.
- Gonorrhea: Cloudy white or yellow discharge.
- Trichomoniasis: Green, yellow or gray discharge that’s either very thin or a little bit foamy.
No need to panic, though. All three of these STIs are curable, but you have to see a healthcare provider for treatment. “If left treated, they can cause further health problems, and you can also infect others,” Dr. Goje states.
If your vaginal discharge looks thick and cottage cheese-like, take note. “In teens, thick, white discharge is usually associated with a yeast infection,” Dr. Goje says. “Yeast infections are especially common in young women with chronic steroid use or chronic antibiotic use, like to control asthma or lupus.”
Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in your vagina. They may also be accompanied by symptoms like:
- A burning sensation, like when you pee.
- A newly strong or unusual odor.
Good news, though: Yeast infections can be uncomfortable, but they’re treatable with an over-the-counter cream with a prescription from a doctor.
This infection is also caused by bacterial overgrowth in your vagina, although it’s a different kind of bacteria than a yeast infection. “It can cause off-white or grey discharge that has a strong, fishy smell, especially after you have sex or before and after your period,” Dr. Goje explains.
Like yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis is common and treatable, but you do need to see a doctor for antibiotics.
Being pregnant can cause all kinds of changes in your body, and vaginal discharge is a common one. “For teens who are sexually active, discharge may be a marker for a new pregnancy,” Dr. Rome says.
Pregnancy discharge usually comes in the first trimester (the first few months of pregnancy) and is often sticky and white or light yellow.
If you’re sexually active, try to remember when you had your last period. If your next period is late, take a home pregnancy test or make an appointment to see your doctor ASAP.
When to see a doctor
There’s no real way to know the cause of your vaginal discharge without talking to a healthcare professional, so if you’re experiencing it — especially for the first time — it’s always worth asking.
They may tell you that everything looks completely normal down there or they can help diagnose and treat an issue.
“Either way, if you have any concerns at all, it deserves to be checked out with your doctor,” Dr. Rome reiterates.
It might feel embarrassing or scary to ask a doctor about something so personal, but try to remember that’s what they’re there for. And if you haven’t yet seen a gynecologist, it’s OK to ask a family doctor or even a pediatrician. They’re used to answering questions like this, and they can definitely help.