Let’s be real: Many of us have experienced that moment when you pulled down your pants in the bathroom, saw a different color than usual, and asked, “Is that normal?”
This is often followed by questions like, “Is it the time of the month?”, “What did I eat this week?”, and even “How was the sex last night?”
Many of these colors are common and not a reflection of illness. But even if you know you’re in the clear, what do these colors actually mean?
Well, wonder no longer. We put together a color guide that’s not only medically accurate, but also fun to look at. And even though there’s usually nothing to worry about, there’s also information on consulting a professional if you’re concerned.
Here’s your Pantone guide to vaginal discharge.
Vaginal discharge is the medical term for fluid that comes from the vagina, and it’s an amazing thing.
It’s how your body gets rid of dead vaginal skin cells, bacteria, and secretions from your cervix and vagina to help protect your vaginal and urinary tracts from infection. It also keeps your vaginal tissues lubricated and clean.
Your hormones impact the amount and consistency of vaginal discharge, which is why you may have different amounts at certain times, like before menstruation, during pregnancy, or while using hormonal birth control.
Red or brown bloody discharge is common during menstruation. Colors might range from cherry red at the beginning of your period to rusty brown. But if you do see red throughout the month, it could be a sign of an underlying health condition, like an infection.
Reasons for red or brown discharge
Irregular menstrual cycle or spotting: Some people simply have irregular periods and spotting. Others experience spotting due to their birth control method or hormonal changes.
A variety of white shades of discharge, from eggshell to cream, can be common. Unless your discharge is accompanied by certain textures or smells, don’t fret too much.
Reasons for white discharge
Vaginal lubrication: White discharge can occur for many of the same reasons as clear discharge. It’s simply natural lubrication, keeping your vaginal tissue healthy and minimizing friction during sex.
Very light yellow discharge is more common than you might think. Sometimes the color is daffodil yellow. Other times it’s more of a greener chartreuse.
Reasons for yellow-green discharge
Diet or supplement use: This color is usually a sign of an infection, but if you know you’re probably in the clear (as in it’s a one-off occurrence), what you eat could affect the color. Some people report this color change occurring whenever they take new vitamins or try certain foods.
Pink discharge, ranging from a very light blush to the deep pink of a sunset, is often just a sign of the beginning of your cycle. But at other times, it can be a sign of a serious health problem.
Reasons for pink discharge
Clear discharge, which can also be whitish, is usually OK. It may have an egg-white like consistency. It’s also the go-to discharge a healthy body expels to rebalance itself — because the vagina is a self-cleaning organ.
Reasons for clear discharge
Vaginal discharge during pregnancy: Pregnancy can also cause a change in hormones and increase how much discharge you have.
Sexual arousal: During arousal, blood vessels in that vagina dilate and fluid passes through them, causing an increase in clear, watery discharge. Totally fine.
When white turns to gray, like storm clouds or exhaust, consult a doctor or other healthcare professional (HCP). It could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is a common overgrowth of bacteria in people with vaginas.
Your clinician will likely prescribe antibacterial ointments or oral antibiotics.
If you’re worried about your discharge color, amount, or other symptoms, your body is pretty good at letting you know. It’ll send some pretty specific cues, like itching, pain, and burning during urination, to tell you to get a downstairs checkup.
Consult a HCP if you’re concerned about potential STI exposure or if your discharge is accompanied by these symptoms or signs:
- burning sensation during urination
- strong, foul odor
- frothy texture
- thick, cottage cheese texture
- gray color
- bleeding that’s unrelated to menstruation
What underlying conditions can affect vaginal discharge?
Sometimes these conditions can be eliminated based on your individual circumstances. Gonorrhea and chlamydia, for example, can generally be eliminated if you’ve never engaged in partnered sexual contact.
Although the chart below is a starting point, it’s always a good idea to consult a HCP if you’re unable to pinpoint a cause, or if you’re unsure of your health status.
|Clear discharge||White discharge||Yellow-green discharge||Red discharge||Pink discharge||Gray discharge|
|Bacterial vaginosis (BV)||X||X|
|Desquamative inflammatory vaginitis (DIV)||X|
Why does vaginal discharge smell?
Yup, healthy vaginal discharge has a smell. The smell comes from the combination of cells and organisms in it. Tack on sweat from neighboring groin glands, too.
Just like the amount of vaginal discharge secreted is dependent on hormones, so is the smell. This is why you might notice it smells different throughout the month.
Unless the smell is overly strong or unpleasant, it’s usually NBD.
You might not always think of it this way, but vaginal discharge is pretty amazing. Healthy discharge helps keep the vagina clean, ward off infections, and provide lubrication. It changes with your body’s needs.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a range of shades and amounts of vaginal discharge is considered typical and varies from person to person.
But your vaginal discharge is also a reflection of your overall health. If discharge occurs unexpectedly or changes significantly in color, consistency, amount, or smell, consult a HCP.
Likewise, if your discharge is accompanied by an itch or pelvic pain, it’s time to consult a clinician.
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and Reductress. You can reach out to her on Twitter.