Vaginal discharge: Colors, consistency & Causes

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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. 

What does normal vaginal discharge look like?

“Normal” 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, get in touch with your doctor. 

IIn general, 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 to keep your vagina happy. Probiotics and prebiotics can also help keep your vaginal pH in check.1

Your 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: You just finished peeing and, just as you’re about to get up from the toilet, 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, normal bacteria, gland secretions, and shed vaginal old 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, your 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 its tissue healthy 2
  • It helps keep vaginal pH in check, for vaginal infection prevention 4
  • Provides all-natural lubrication for sexual intercourse
  • Protects against irritation 2
  • Assists sperm through the vaginal canal to increase the chances of pregnancy, aiding fertility 4
  • Helps create a mucus plug once you are pregnant to protect the growing fetus 5

Vaginal discharge: Types

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 – others see it 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 do so, 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.

flex reusable menstrual disc

But, what does healthy discharge look, feel, and smell like? If you’re noticing any of the following types of discharge, 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 vaginal discharge, a.k.a. clear discharge:

Some describe it as “a watery discharge feels like I peed myself.” This type of discharge could make your underwear feel damp and typically occurs during the follicular phase, the time between your period and ovulation.6 While this discharge is typically odorless, sometimes a sour smell may accompany it. This smell relates to a change in your pH; it’s not necessarily a sign of an infection.1 

Creamy or milky white discharge:

This type of discharge usually occurs before your period. This milky or creamy white discharge before your period is 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. Some refer to it as ovulation discharge. That stretchy, raw egg-white consistency is what helps sperm stay alive long enough to swim through the vaginal canal.    

Light pink discharge:

A slight pink color in your discharge usually indicates that some blood has been added to the mix. It is common to see it before or at the very end of a period. It can occur for different reasons: For some, it happens at ovulation, or it may even indicate pregnancy a.k.a. implantation bleeding.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 of the discharge 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 notice weird bleached spots in the crotch of your underwear, talk to your doctor or OB-GYN about how you might be able to balance your vaginal pH.

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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 discharge can be your body’s way of 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. 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. It usually comes with vaginal itching, burning, soreness, and irritation and typically indicates a vaginal 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.  

Greyish or off-white vaginal discharge with a fishy smell:

Grayish or fishy discharge usually indicates bacterial vaginosis (BV), which can be treated with antibiotics. However, 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 or an increased amount of vaginal discharge:

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. If left untreated, PID can cause serious health complications. If you think you have PID symptoms, contact your doctor or OB-GYN ASAP.  

Yellowish or green discharge:

If you notice greenish or yellow discharge with a bad odor, painful urination, or vaginal bleeding between periods, this could also indicate a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) or another infection.9 As with off-smelling or gray discharge, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your doctor.   

How to manage it

Discharge is totally normal. 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, grey, or yellowish in color, or that smells off (like spoiled milk or fish). If you notice any of these changes, call your doctor or OB-GYN.   

To deal with normal discharge and keep your vaginal pH healthy, stick with breathable, 100% cotton or bamboo underwear. Your vagina loves fresh air, so make sure to let it breathe! Always change out of sweaty gym clothes or swimsuits as soon as you can and, at night, try sleeping without underwear.

This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician. 

© 2023 The Flex Company. All Rights Reserved.

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/microorganisms8010130[][][][]
  2. Vaginal 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-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-bleeding[][]
  7. Pelvic 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/[]