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Vaginal discharge is the body’s way of protecting the vagina from infections. And it can look different throughout your menstrual cycle.

You may produce around a teaspoon of thick or thin, odorless mucus each day, and the color can change from white to clear to brown.

There’s a reason for all of this: your hormones.

But white discharge can have a number of other causes, too.

Here’s more about why you might see white discharge before your period.

Discharge keeps the tissues in your vagina healthy and lubricated. The white discharge you may see before your period is known as leukorrhea. It’s filled with fluid and cells that are being shed from the vagina and may even look slightly yellow at times.

This part of your menstrual cycle is called the luteal phase. It’s when the hormone progesterone peaks in your body. When estrogen is the dominant hormone, discharge tends to be clear, stretchy, or watery. Progesterone, on the other hand, turns it cloudy or white.

Some people use discharge as a way to track potential fertility. This is known as a natural family planning strategy, or fertility awareness method.

Thin, stretchy mucus is considered fertile, as it happens around the time when your egg may be released. White, thick discharge is considered infertile.

That makes sense, as you most often see this type of mucus when you’re no longer fertile — between ovulation and the start of your period.

While white discharge before your period can just be a sign of usual reproductive system functioning, it can have other triggers.

Some may be nothing to worry about. But any discharge that comes with a strong smell, particularly thick texture, or irritation can be a sign of an infection.

Here are some other potential causes to consider.

Birth control

Birth control changes your hormone levels, which can lead to more discharge — particularly if your contraceptive contains estrogen.

Pregnancy

More discharge before your period is due can be an early sign of pregnancy. That’s because estrogen levels are high.

It can be hard to tell this apart from your regular discharge, but it usually appears white or slightly yellow in color and may be sticky.

Other signs of early pregnancy include:

  • missed period
  • aching breast or chest tissue
  • nausea
  • tiredness
  • needing to urinate more often

Sexually transmitted infection (STI)

Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis are the STIs most likely to cause changes to your usual discharge.

Chlamydia and trichomoniasis discharge may look white in color. But it, along with gonorrhea discharge, can also appear yellow or green.

With chlamydia and gonorrhea, you may also experience pelvic pain, bleeding between periods and after penetrative vaginal sex, and pain when urinating.

Trichomoniasis can also cause irritation around the vagina and pain when urinating or having penetrative vaginal sex. Discharge associated with this STI may have a fishy smell, too.

However, it’s common for STIs to come with no symptoms at all.

Yeast infection (candidiasis)

Thick, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese along with itching and burning sensations in the vagina are all signs of a yeast infection.

Antibiotic use, birth control pills, and pregnancy can all increase your risk of this common infection.

But it’s more likely to happen right before you get your period as the same hormonal changes that trigger a period can lead to a yeast imbalance in the vagina.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is an infection that occurs when the natural balance of bacteria in your vagina changes. The cause is unknown, but it’s been linked to things like having a new sexual partner and using perfumed products near or in your vagina.

Discharge from bacterial vaginosis tends to have a fishy smell, be gray or white in color, and look thin or watery. But half of the people affected have no symptoms.

Dryness is common in the three to four days after your period ends. After that, you may experience three to five days of white, cloudy, or sticky discharge. This is called the follicular phase when an egg is developing.

Lots of clear and stretchy or watery discharge is common around the time of ovulation. In fact, you may see up to 30 times your usual amount of daily discharge. This “egg white” discharge is thin and slippery, which is extremely helpful to sperm traveling to the waiting egg.

White discharge returns again after ovulation as progesterone takes over as the primary hormone. You may see more of it than you do earlier in your cycle. But the amount slowly declines until it becomes thicker and sticky, almost like glue. On average, this mucus lasts for 11 to 14 days.

The mucus right before your period may also look yellow at times. There may even be brown discharge in the days right after your period, which is just old blood leaving your body.

But spotting blood or brown discharge around the time of your expected period may be a sign of implantation in early pregnancy. If your period’s late and you see spotting, it’s a good idea to take a home pregnancy test.

Discharge may be nothing to worry about before your period, particularly if it’s clear, white, sticky, or slippery.

But there are also times when your discharge may signal an underlying health condition. For example, a thick white discharge accompanied by itching may mean you have a yeast infection. Yellow or green discharge may also mean infection, such as bacterial vaginosis.

You should see a clinician if you’re experiencing:

  • pain, burning, or other discomfort in and around the vagina
  • rash or sores with or without discharge
  • cottage cheese-like or frothy discharge
  • strong or fishy vaginal odor
  • bleeding between periods or after sex

STIs can also affect discharge and lead to serious health complications, such as infertility if left untreated. So try to see a clinician as soon as possible if you notice a change.

At your appointment, they will ask you questions about your symptoms, medical history, and general lifestyle, including any products you use near or in your vaginal area.

They’ll also likely perform a pelvic examination and swab your vagina, testing the discharge then and there or sending it to a lab for more complex testing. Treatment may involve a combination of antibiotics and lifestyle changes.

Vaginal discharge is natural throughout your menstrual cycle. But infections can affect the color, texture, and even the smell of the discharge.

So keeping an eye on what it’s usually like can help you quickly notice any changes that may need medical attention.

You can also reduce the risk of infections by:


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.