A fluid that helps keep the vagina clean and infection-free, vaginal discharge is completely natural. But its color, texture, and amount can differ, depending on your age and where you are in your menstrual cycle.
Some changes, however, can be a sign of an underlying health condition. These can include significant color or odor changes as well as a difference in consistency.
From types and causes to when it’s best to seek medical attention, here’s the lowdown on vaginal discharge.
Several types of vaginal discharge exist — often categorized by color and consistency.
White-colored discharge is common, especially at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle. Typically, this discharge will be thick and sticky, too, with no strong odor.
Clear and watery
Around ovulation, discharge often becomes clearer and wetter. You may also notice more discharge like this when you’re sexually aroused or pregnant.
Clear and stretchy
When discharge is clear but stretchy and mucous-like, rather than watery, it indicates that you are likely ovulating.
Brown or bloody
Brown or bloody discharge can occur during or right after your menstrual cycle. You may also experience a small amount of bloody discharge between periods. This is called spotting.
Spotting that occurs during the usual time of your period and after recent sex without a barrier or other protection may be a sign of pregnancy. And spotting during early pregnancy can be a sign of miscarriage.
Yellow or green
Yellow-ish discharge may not indicate a health condition as it can naturally turn this color when exposed to air.
But darker yellow or green discharge — especially when it’s thick, chunky, or accompanied by an unpleasant smell — is a sign to see a healthcare professional.
Vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function resulting from natural changes in estrogen levels. The amount of discharge can increase from the likes of ovulation, sexual arousal, birth control pills, and pregnancy.
The color, smell, and texture of vaginal discharge can be adversely affected by changes to the vagina’s bacterial balance. That’s because when the number of harmful bacteria increases, vaginal infections are more likely.
Here are some of the possible infections to be aware of.
Bacterial vaginosis is a common bacterial infection. It causes increased vaginal discharge that has a strong, foul, and sometimes fishy odor. Discharge may also look gray, thin, and watery. In some cases, the infection produces no symptoms.
Although bacterial vaginosis isn’t transmitted via sexual contact, you have a higher risk of developing it if you’re sexually active or have recently gotten a new sexual partner. The infection can also put you at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Trichomoniasis is another type of infection caused by a parasite. It’s usually spread by sexual contact, but can also be contracted by sharing towels or bathing suits.
Up to half of the people affected have no symptoms. Those who do will often notice a yellow, green, or frothy discharge with an unpleasant odor. Pain, inflammation, and itching around the vagina as well as when urinating or having sex are also common signs.
A yeast infection occurs when yeast growth increases in the vagina. It produces a thick and white discharge that looks similar to cottage cheese. This discharge doesn’t usually smell.
Other symptoms include burning, itching, and other irritation around the vagina along with soreness during sex or when urinating.
The following can increase your likelihood of yeast infections:
- use of birth control pills
- antibiotics, especially prolonged use over 10 days
Gonorrhea and chlamydia
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are STIs that can produce an abnormal discharge due to infecting the cervix. It’s often yellow, greenish, or cloudy in color.
You may also experience:
- pain when urinating
- stomach pain
- bleeding after penetrative vaginal sex
- bleeding between periods
But some people may have zero symptoms.
This STI can lead to thick vaginal discharge with a strong smell, particularly after sex. Sores and blisters
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Heavy, foul-smelling discharge and pain in the stomach, after sex, or while menstruating or urinating may be signs of pelvic inflammatory disease.
This occurs when bacteria move into the vagina and up to other reproductive organs and can be caused by STIs that are left untreated like chlamydia or gonorrhea.
Human papillomavirus or cervical cancer
The human papillomavirus infection is spread by sexual contact and can lead to cervical cancer. While there may be no symptoms, this type of cancer can result in:
- bloody, brown, or watery discharge with an unpleasant odor
- unusual bleeding occurring between periods or after sex
- pain while urinating or an increased urge to urinate
In rare cases, brown or bloody discharge can also be a sign of endometrial cancer, fibroids, or other growths.
If you’re ever worried about your vaginal discharge, talk with a clinician as soon as possible. This is particularly true if your discharge changes color, smell, or consistency or if you’re noticing more of it than usual.
Other symptoms to watch out for include:
- irritation around the vagina
- bleeding between periods, after penetrative vaginal sex, or after menopause
- pain when urinating
- pain in the abdomen or during penetrative vaginal sex
- unexplained weight loss
- increased urination
If you don’t already have a obgyn, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.
When you see a healthcare professional, they’ll likely perform a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. The clinician will also ask several questions about your symptoms, menstrual cycle, and general lifestyle. In many cases, an infection can be detected by a physical or pelvic exam.
If a healthcare professional is unable to diagnose the problem immediately, they may swab your vagina to get a sample of the discharge and examine it under a microscope or send it to a lab for further testing. They may also want to take a scraping from your cervix to check for human papillomavirus or cervical cancer.
Once the clinician knows the cause of the discharge, you’ll be given treatment options. These can range from a short course of antibiotics to surgery in rare cases.
As vaginal discharge is natural, it’s not possible to prevent it. But you can take measures to reduce the chance of infections.
Gently wash around your vagina with water, avoiding scented products and douches that may cause irritation. Drying the area thoroughly and wearing breathable cotton underwear can also help.
Additionally, consider using a condom or other barrier method during sexual activity and thoroughly clean sex toys to reduce your risk of STIs. And if you have a period, try to change the likes of tampons and pads frequently.
Keeping an eye on your vaginal discharge can help you track what’s typical for your body and notice changes as quickly as possible.
Anything out of the ordinary is a sign to talk with a healthcare professional. Remember that the quicker most infections are diagnosed and treated, the less chance there is of long-term complications.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.