Urine is generally yellow and watery, and discharge is usually white or pasty. Excessive discharge and urine leakage have different underlying causes, and medical attention may be necessary for diagnosis and treatment.
Your body releases discharge through your vaginal opening. Discharge contains skin cells, bacteria, mucus, and other fluids created in your cervix, uterus, and ovaries.
Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle and whether you’ve recently engaged in sexual activity, discharge may also contain blood, lubricant, or seminal fluid.
Discharge is usually a sign that the vagina is adequately self-lubricating and self-cleaning, explains reproductive health specialist Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
Your body typically only releases urine when your brain signals your urethra to relax — when you make the conscious decision to urinate.
Unexpected, unmanaged urine leakage is known as incontinence.
“Typically, urine is much thinner than discharge,” says Monte Swarup, MD, OB-GYN, founder of the leading health information site Vaginal Health Hub.
Although discharge can be watery, it’s usually gooey, sticky, or pasty. You might compare the consistency to that of yogurt or boogers.
Discharge that’s chunky — think cottage cheese — or foamy is generally a sign of an underlying health condition.
Healthy discharge can have many smells, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, what your diet has been like, and how hydrated you are.
For example, discharge may smell:
Releasing more than 1 teaspoon (roughly the size of a penny) of discharge in a 24-hour period is considered excessive, according to Swarup.
An unexpected change in volume, consistency, odor, or color may occur from:
- atrophic vaginitis
- genital hygiene products that contain alcohol, fragrance, or other irritants
- pelvic inflammatory disease
- yeast infection
Leakage triggered by laughing, coughing, sneezing, or exercise is called stress incontinence.
This could be because the pelvic floor muscles aren’t strong enough or are too tight, short, or overactive to properly function, she explains.
Urge incontinence involves a sudden, intense need to pee and typically occurs due to an overactive detrusor muscle.
Leakage may occur moments before you’re about to use the bathroom, she says. You might be pulling into your driveway, putting your key in the door, or actively walking toward the restroom when it happens.
When symptoms of stress and urge incontinence occur, it’s known as mixed incontinence.
Your bladder will eventually become too full and leak, notes Jeffcoat.
If you have a physical limitation that prevents you from getting to the bathroom before leakage happens, it’s known as functional incontinence.
Talk with a doctor or another healthcare professional for a diagnosis
Unusual discharge or other leakage due to an underlying condition won’t resolve on its own. It’s important to talk with a doctor or another healthcare professional who can assess your symptoms and advise you on the next steps.
Your clinician can prescribe antibiotics or anti-fungal medication to treat an underlying infection. Your discharge should return to its usual state after completing the full course of medication.
Depending on the underlying cause, urinary incontinence may be treatable with one or more of the following:
- bladder training
- double voiding
- scheduled bathroom breaks
- at-home pelvic floor massage and exercise
- pelvic floor therapy
- electrical stimulation therapy
- internal or external catheter
“A comprehensive workup and the right rehabilitation program can yield amazing results,” says Jeffcoat. “Even folks with severe urinary incontinence can become 100% leak-free”
You can reduce your chance of unusual or excessive discharge by doing the following to reduce your chance of vaginal infections:
- wiping front to back
- wearing breathable underwear
- taking off wet or sweaty clothes as soon as possible
- changing your pad, tampon, cup, or other period product consistently
Aside from abstinence, there’s no surefire way to guarantee that you won’t contract an STI. But using barrier protection, talking with your partners about STI status, and staying up to date on your vaccinations can help.
To reduce your chance of urinary incontinence, Jeffcoat recommends doing pelvic floor ”prehab” work.
Your pelvic floor muscles — just like any other muscle — need exercise. Otherwise, they might weaken over time.
A pelvic floor therapist can help you develop a routine to strengthen and support your pelvic floor.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.