Vaginal discharge is a constant presence in women who menstruate. It can begin as early as a few months before your period first starts in adolescence. It generally tapers off after menopause.

Vaginal discharge is the way a woman’s body expels fluid and cells. The production of vaginal discharge can vary from woman to woman, and can change in consistency and appearance depending on many factors. These factors include:

  • menstrual cycle
  • hormones
  • pregnancy
  • infections

Vaginal discharge usually begins around the time a girl gets her first period. It can start up to six months before you have your first period. This is when the body is undergoing many hormonal changes. The type of vaginal discharge your body produces can shift during your menstrual cycle and during your lifetime. You may find it is heavier or lighter at different times.

Generally, healthy vaginal discharge:

  • appears clear or white in color
  • has a slight odor, but not one that is strong smelling
  • can leave a yellowish tint on your underwear
  • changes in consistency depending on your menstrual cycle

Vaginal discharge is made up of fluids from your uterus, cervix, and vagina. When your body releases an egg from your ovary, you may notice that your vaginal discharge is thicker. This change in discharge may can indicate peak fertility times.

During pregnancy, your body may produce more vaginal discharge than usual. As you age and experience menopause, your body may produce less or no vaginal discharge because the body is no longer ovulating and estrogen levels shift. As a result, women who are in perimenopause, menopause, or postmenopause may experience vaginal dryness.

Most of the time, vaginal discharge is not something you should worry about. You should contact your doctor if you notice your vaginal discharge has changed from its typical consistency, color, and smell, or if you have other symptoms in your vaginal area.

You should discuss your vaginal discharge with your doctor if:

  • it has changed in consistency and appears yellow, green, or even gray
  • it resembles cottage cheese in color and consistency
  • it looks foamy or frothy
  • it has a strong smell of fish, yeast, or another odor
  • it is brown or blood-stained

Also contact your doctor if you experience vaginal itching, swelling, burning, or pain.

Unusual vaginal discharge may be a sign that you have an infection, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or another health condition that could include:

You may also experience a change in vaginal discharge because of a foreign object in your vagina. This can include pieces of toilet paper. If a child experiences vaginal discharge before puberty, there may be a possibility that a foreign object is in the vagina.

Abnormal discharge may also be a side effect of douching. Douching is cleaning the inside of the vagina with water or other products. Douching is not necessary for a woman and may actually cause infection. It can interfere with the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina. One in 4 women in the United States between ages 15 and 44 douche. It is not recommended by doctors. Douching is linked to infections, STDs, and even fertility problems.

Abnormal vaginal discharge is not a symptom of one single infection or health condition. Your doctor will need to review your symptoms and may conduct tests to determine the cause of unusual vaginal discharge.

Tests may include:

  • physical exams
  • pap smears
  • samples reviewed under a microscope
  • pH tests

If you have a yeast infection, your doctor will prescribe an antifungal medicine in pill or cream form. Other conditions, like trichomoniasis or bacterial vaginosis, may require an antibiotic in addition to other treatments. STDs should be treated with antibiotics. It’s possible for you to have more than one infection at a time.

Read more: Home remedies for vaginal yeast infections »

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive cycle. You may notice your discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle and over the years. There can also be changes in your vaginal discharge that may be symptoms of an infection or other health condition and should be checked by your doctor immediately.

To keep your vagina healthy:

  • Clean only the outside of your vagina with soap and water when bathing.
  • Avoid using scented products, such as scented tampons or douching products.
  • Wear clothing that breathes, especially in high humidity, to avoid vaginal irritation. That includes tight pants or other restrictive garments.
  • Change out of wet clothes or bathing suits quickly.
  • Visit your doctor regularly for testing and checkups if you are sexually active.
  • Discuss any irregular vaginal discharge immediately, before the condition worsens.