Of all the things that women worry about or expect during pregnancy, vaginal discharge, or leukorrhea, may not be one of them. Yet excessive vaginal discharge is quite common and quite a shock to women who have never heard of it.
Heather Cook from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was concerned that the heavy discharge was the beginning of premature labor. “I had some abdominal and lower back pain one day in my third trimester and went in to see if I was in early labor,” Cook says. “My midwife met me at the hospital and tested me to see if the fluid was actually amniotic fluid (there’s a swab they can take to test it) and it wasn’t. That answered that for me. It was just an annoyance, nothing else.”
Leslie* from Santa Clarita, Calif., was another woman surprised by the advent of leukorrhea. The first appearance of the heavy discharge led her to the emergency room.
“This was my first pregnancy, so I panicked over every little twinge I felt, every unexpected thing that happened,” Leslie says. “When I had my first dose of heavy discharge, I called my mom. She said that had never happened to her, so my husband and I went to the emergency room. After a long wait, an ultrasound and an exam, the ER doctor told me everything was fine. But he never adequately explained what was happening to me.”
When Foster went to her regular doctor, he told her that it wasn’t anything to worry about. “It made me wonder why no one, not my doctor, not all the pregnancy books out there, warned me that it could happen!” Leslie says. “There are so many realities of pregnancy that are just too gross to divulge, I guess.”
How Common Is Leukorrhea?
Dr. Waverly F. Peakes, an OB/GYN with The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, say that leukorrhea is considered a very normal symptom of pregnancy, and usually increases throughout the nine months of gestation.
“Almost every pregnant woman will experience leukorrhea to some degree,” Dr. Peakes says. “Some pregnant women will have profuse vaginal discharge, which can even require a daily pantyliner, while others will just notice a little excess discharge when they wipe themselves after urination.”
What Causes Leukorrhea?
According to Dr. Peakes, leukorrhea is caused by increased secretions from the cervical glands and the vaginal walls. Pregnancy is considered to be a high-estrogen state, which contributes to the release of this excessive discharge.
“Normal leukorrhea should be clear or white vaginal discharge,” Dr. Peakes says. “It usually is odorless and very viscous. It consists of multiple squamous cells that have been sloughed off from the vagina and cervix.”
When Is Leukorrhea Abnormal?
Any discharge that has a distinct color or odor to it, such as a malodorous, blood-tinged discharge, along with symptoms of vaginal irritation, burning or itching, should always be discussed with your doctor so that he or she can test for an underlying vaginal infection.
“Abnormal leukorrhea is usually caused by a vaginal or cervical infection,” Dr. Peakes says. “It can be something as simple as a vaginal yeast infection, which gives a thick yellow discharge and vaginal/vulvar itching. Many pregnant women have a bacterial infection of the vagina, which is called bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis is usually a thin watery discharge with a “fishy” smell to it. Trichomonas is a sexually transmitted disease, which causes women to have a copious yellow-green discharge. Other sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, are less commonly seen with pregnancy; however, it is still recommended to check for them if you have unusual discharge present.”
It is easy for your obstetrician to check for these vaginal/cervical infections by using a vaginal swab test in the office. Most patients can find out the results of this testing within a day to a week’s time.
Though normal leukorrhea during pregnancy isn’t anything to worry about, it can be inconvenient and embarrassing. Cook remembers being afraid the leaking would be visible.
“It would happen when I’d sit for a long time and then stood up,” Cook says. “Some fluid would come out and I’d notice that my underwear would be wet. It felt like several tablespoons, enough to sometimes soak through to my jeans! Once I realized what it was, I wasn’t as concerned about the fluid as I was about the leaking – what if someone happened to look in the wrong spot and saw? I started wearing a light pad when I was at work and sitting for long periods during the day. That helped with my immediate worry of leaking through.”
In spite of the inconvenience, leukorrhea is just one more pregnancy symptom to be lived through, along with hemorrhoids, swollen feet and morning sickness. And just like those symptoms, the memory of it will fade once you look into your newborn’s eyes.
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.
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