Vaginal Discharge: Causes, Colors, & Consistency

banner-image

Everyone’s “normal” discharge looks a bit different; it even changes throughout the month depending on the phase of your menstrual cycle.

Your Vaginal Discharge Can Give You Valuable Intel Into Your Overall Health

Your vagina is a pretty magical thing: It self-regulates (a.k.a. keeps itself clean) without a whole lot of intervention or maintenance. However, your lifestyle choices can occasionally throw the vagina’s delicate ecosystem out of whack. That’s when you’re likely to notice changes to your vaginal discharge. 

“Normal” vaginal discharge is different for everyone – and it depends on where you are in your menstrual cycle. If your discharge smells funky, looks off, or if you’re experiencing pain, swelling, itchiness, or other forms of vaginal discomfort, definitely get in touch with your doctor. 

In general, try to avoid wearing wet clothes for too long (think bikini bottoms or sweaty workout clothes), practice safe sex, and stick to underwear made from breathable materials like cotton or bamboo to keep your vagina happy. Probiotics and prebiotics can also help keep your vaginal pH in check.1

Your vaginal discharge can serve as a window to your overall health, so it’s worth getting familiar with it. Here’s everything you need to know: 

What is Vaginal Discharge?

Here’s a scenario you’ve probably experienced once or twice: You just finished peeing and, just as you’re about to get up from the toilet and get on with your day, you happen to glance down – and see a bunch of white stuff coating the crotch area of your brand new, expensive underwear.

That’s your vaginal discharge, aka leukorrhea! What is vaginal discharge, you ask? Vaginal discharge is a general term that refers to any fluids secreted through the vagina. Ever heard of cervical fluid or cervical mucus? It’s what the cervix produces throughout your cycle to help facilitate (or prevent) egg fertilization. Vaginal discharge includes your cervical fluid, as well as vaginal fluids, bacteria, gland secretions, and shed vaginal cells.2 3 Yum!

At some point in time, you’ve probably felt a little bit embarrassed about your discharge (or maybe even hid your underwear from a partner or sex buddy before discretely sneaking it into the wash). Well, banish those thoughts from your memory: Your vaginal discharge is actually pretty amazing – and it’s one of your vagina’s greatest superpowers. 

What’s So Great About Vaginal Discharge?

  • It cleans the vagina and keeps vaginal tissue healthy 2
  • It helps keep vaginal pH (aka acidity levels) in check, which is important for infection prevention 4
  • Provides all-natural lubrication for sex
  • Protects against irritation 2
  • Assists sperm through the vaginal canal to increase the chances of pregnancy 4
  • Helps create a mucus plug once you are pregnant to protect the growing fetus 5

Types of Vaginal Discharge

So, what should your discharge look like? Everyone’s “normal” discharge looks a bit different; it even changes throughout the month depending on the phase of your menstrual cycle. Some people with vaginas almost never see discharge on their underwear – and others see discharge all the time. 

Getting familiar with your version of normal is key because your fluids can clue you into your body’s overall wellbeing. To really get down with your fluids, in addition to checking your underwear, you can put clean fingers inside your vagina, then pull out, and rub between your thumb and forefinger to get a sense of the consistency. You can also wipe your vagina BEFORE you pee and look at the toilet paper.

What Does Healthy Discharge Look, Feel, and Smell Like?

If you’re noticing any of the following types of discharge (and as long as it doesn’t smell way different from the usual), it’s most likely 100% healthy:

Dry or Minimal Discharge: This type of discharge usually occurs after menstruation or at the end of the luteal phase (post-ovulation). This discharge is typically odorless unless you’ve worked up a sweat or need a quick rinse. 

Thin & Watery Discharge: Ever feel like you peed yourself a little or like you just got your period but there’s no blood? This type of discharge could make your underwear feel damp and typically occurs during the follicular phase, the time frame between your period and ovulation.6 While this discharge is also typically odorless (unless you’ve worked up a sweat), sometimes a sour smell may accompany it.  This smell relates to a change in your vaginal pH; it does not necessarily indicate infection.1 

Creamy or Milky White Discharge: This type of discharge usually occurs before your period; it’s totally normal and generally odorless (or it may have a mildly sour smell). 

Thicker, Stretchy, or Stringy Discharge: Not everybody experiences this, but for those who do, it likely indicates your most fertile time of the month: Just before ovulation. That stretchy, egg-white consistency is what helps sperm stay alive long enough to swim through the vaginal canal.  

Pinkish Discharge: When you see a slight pink color in your discharge, it usually indicates that some blood has been added to the mix, typically due to spotting or the very beginning or end of your period. Spotting can occur for many different reasons: For some, it happens at ovulation, or it may even indicate pregnancy.6 Spotting is also common with certain forms of hormonal birth control. 

Reddish or Brown Discharge: As with pink discharge, this is an indication that you are excreting some blood – the darker color usually means that the blood is older. It’s common to see this kind of discharge either just before or right after your period.7 This type of discharge may also have a metallic or coppery smell, either of which is a-ok.   

Discharge That Bleaches Your Underwear: This can happen sometimes! Vaginas are naturally on the acidic side – and acidic things (like lemon juice) can occasionally cause bleaching. However, it’s possible for there to be too much acidity. If you’re noticing that almost all your underwear has weird bleached spots in the crotch, talk to your doctor or OB-GYN about how you might be able to reduce the acidity and balance your vaginal pH.

Abnormal Discharge: When to Call Your Doctor

While the body has a lot of underappreciated defense mechanisms in place to help keep us healthy, sometimes it needs some extra support. Changes in vaginal discharge can mean your body is sending you an SOS. 

The good news is, most of the underlying causes for abnormal vaginal discharge are easily treatable. However, if you let them go too long without proper care, there’s a chance for more serious health complications (i.e. with discharge caused by an STI) – so don’t procrastinate on getting in touch with your doctor if you notice one of the following changes: 

Thick, White, Clumpy Discharge: This is also called “cottage cheese” discharge – not the most pleasant-sounding (or feeling), we know. This kind of discharge usually comes with itching, burning, soreness, and irritation and typically indicates a yeast infection due to an imbalance of bacteria in the vaginal flora.1,8 If all those signs line up, try an over the counter anti-fungal suppository designed for treating yeast infections. 

Grayish or Off-White Discharge with a Fishy Smell: Grayish or fishy discharge usually indicates bacterial vaginosis (BV), but it can also point to trichomoniasis or other sexually transmitted infections.1 The fishy odor tends to accompany BV, whereas “trich” may appear frothier and not quite “fishy” but still unpleasant-smelling. 

Off-Smelling Discharge or an Increased Amount: An increased amount of discharge or discharge that’s just plain weird-smelling can indicate Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (along with symptoms like lower back pain, fever, pain during sex).7 PID is a common and treatable infection that impacts the uterus, fallopian tubes, and/or ovaries. However, if left untreated, PID can cause serious health complications. If you think you have PID symptoms, contact your doctor or OB-GYN ASAP. 

Greenish or Yellowish Discharge: If you notice that your discharge has a green or yellow tint to it, this could also indicate an STI or another infection.9 As with off-smelling or grayish discharge, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your doctor. 

How to Manage Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal discharge is totally normal and, while it can be annoying at times, it’s usually just a sign that your vagina is doing the things it’s supposed to do (like self-cleaning). Of course, keep an eye – and nose – out for discharge that’s unusually thick, greenish, grayish, or yellowish in color, or that smells off (like spoiled milk or fish). If you notice any of these changes, give your doctor or OB-GYN a call just to be safe. 

To deal with normal discharge and keep your vaginal pH healthy, it’s a good idea to stick with breathable, 100% cotton or bamboo underwear: Your vagina loves fresh air, so make sure to let it breathe! Moisture and warmth create a perfect environment for bacterial growth. Always change out of sweaty gym clothes or swimsuits as soon as you can and, at night, try sleeping without underwear. Your vagina might thank you.

References (Click to open/close)

  1. Superti, F., & De Seta, F. (2020). Warding off recurrent yeast and bacterial vaginal infections: Lactoferrin and lactobacilli. Microorganisms, 8(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8010130Superti, F., & De Seta, F. (2020). Warding off recurrent yeast and bacterial vaginal infections: Lactoferrin and lactobacilli. Microorganisms, 8(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8010130Superti, F., & De Seta, F. (2020). Warding off recurrent yeast and bacterial vaginal infections: Lactoferrin and lactobacilli. Microorganisms, 8(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8010130Superti, F., & De Seta, F. (2020). Warding off recurrent yeast and bacterial vaginal infections: Lactoferrin and lactobacilli. Microorganisms, 8(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms8010130
  2. Vaginal discharge. (2019, February 14). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825Vaginal discharge. (2019, February 14). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825Vaginal discharge. (2019, February 14). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825
  3. Vaginal discharge: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image. (2020, November 3). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/17138.htm
  4. What is the Cervical Mucus Method? Cycle, Stages & Chart. (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved from plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness/whats-cervical-mucus-method-famsWhat is the Cervical Mucus Method? Cycle, Stages & Chart. (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved from plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness/whats-cervical-mucus-method-fams
  5. Vaginal discharge during pregnancy. (2018, October). HealthDirect Australia. Retrieved from pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/vaginal-discharge-during-pregnancy
  6. What Is Implantation Bleeding? (March 5, 2020) American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved from americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/what-is-implantation-bleedingWhat Is Implantation Bleeding? (March 5, 2020) American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved from americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/what-is-implantation-bleeding
  7. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved from plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/pelvic-inflammatory-disease-pidPelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved from plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/pelvic-inflammatory-disease-pid
  8. Yeast infection (vaginal) – Symptoms and causes. (2019, July 16). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999
  9. Odd Color or Odor? What Your Vaginal Discharge Can Tell You. (2020, July 22). Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from health.clevelandclinic.org/vaginal-discharge-mean/