Vaginal discharge is a mix of vaginal and cervical mucus and secretions. The flow of this fluid out of the vagina is a normal way for your self-cleaning vagina to keep itself healthy and moist. It’s common for color, texture, and amount of discharge to change during the course of your menstrual cycle and during arousal. However, certain changes can indicate an infection.
All people with vaginas have some discharge, which they may see on toilet paper or on their underwear. Discharge expels dead cells and bacteria, which helps prevent infection along with the vagina’s naturally acidic pH.1
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Your discharge changes with hormone levels and the production of cervical fluid. Normal vaginal discharge is usually clear, white, or off-white (even slightly yellowish when dried).
Color, thickness, consistency, and amount vary during the stages of your menstrual cycle. At the beginning of your cycle, it’s usually dry and sticky. Then, during the mid-to-late follicular phase, it becomes creamy and white. Just before and around ovulation, the volume is the highest, and the fluid is stretchy, wet, and clear (like egg-whites). While ovulating, it may be noticeably thick and heavy. Then, discharge decreases until the end of the cycle.2
Your discharge may have no smell, or it may have an odor that is mild but not unpleasant. This smell may mix with urine or period blood. Knowing your usual smell will help you identify changes.
Your vagina also produces clear, stretchy, and slippery discharge when you are aroused, which lubricates the vagina during sex.
Abnormal discharge happens when the balance of the vagina’s ecosystem is off, causing changes in color, consistency, amount, or odor.
Conditions that can cause abnormal vaginal discharge include infections like:
Other factors that can cause imbalances and lead to abnormal discharge include:3
Wondering if your discharge is abnormal? Look for changes in:
The type and traits of the vaginal discharge you have can help indicate what’s going on.
Most vaginal discharge is clear and whitish. Around ovulation, it can be stretchy like egg whites.
You may be more likely to experience clear, stretchy discharge before you ovulate, when you’re turned on, or when you’re pregnant.
Different shades of white vaginal discharge may be normal, especially around ovulation. If there are no other symptoms like itching, burning, or smell, your vagina may be just fine.
If your discharge has the texture of cottage cheese and your vagina is itchy, irritated, or burning, it may be a yeast infection. Yeast is a fungus that is naturally present in the vagina but can overgrow and disrupt the balance.4
If the discharge is only slightly yellow and there are no other symptoms, there may be no infection.
However, darker shades of yellow or a frothy, yellow-green color may indicate you have a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis.5 You may also experience itching, pain during urination, and an unpleasant odor. If you think you may have an STD, get tested to check your status so you can get the right treatment.
Red discharge most commonly happens because of bleeding during your period. Most periods happen every 21-35 days and last 3-5 days. If you are experiencing bleeding between periods, it may indicate a serious underlying issue such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or injury, so you should talk to your doctor.6
Pink discharge can be light or deeper in color. Usually, it contains a bit of blood.
Pink discharge can occur during spotting before your period. It can also be an early sign of pregnancy due to implantation bleeding (when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall).7 Also, tears and irritation during sex can sometimes cause discharge to be pink.
Grey vaginal discharge is not healthy and can be caused by bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is caused when there is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your vagina.
Most people with BV do not experience symptoms. When signs do occur, they include thin, grey discharge with a fishy smell, painful urination, and itching in and around the vagina.8
Brown discharge likely contains old, oxidized blood that has taken longer than usual to exit the uterus. It can occur right after your period or be caused by irregular periods. Brown discharge can also be a symptom of pregnancy or perimenopause (the transition before menopause when periods stop).
More serious possible causes include pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a foreign object that has been left in the vagina, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and in rare cases cervical cancer. If brown discharge persists or is accompanied by pain and itching, talk to your healthcare provider.9
Vaginal discharge is natural. However, while some changes are normal, changes in the amount, color, consistency, or smell can indicate an infection or another issue. Every vagina is different, so pay attention to your vaginal discharge. This helps you recognize what is normal for you.
There are many reasons for abnormal discharge, including (but not limited to) the ones mentioned.10 In addition, symptoms of a certain infection can vary between different people. For example, many people who have an STD don’t notice any changes or symptoms. Getting tested is the best way to know for sure what the problem is.
Abnormal discharge can be diagnosed via various methods. To get to the root of the problem, a doctor may ask you several questions about your symptoms, menstrual cycle, and sexual activity, including:
They may also order some tests. They may perform a pelvic exam, take a sample of the discharge, or collect cells from your cervix for a Pap test. Alternatively, certain STD tests like our chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis can be performed via a urine sample, so you don’t need to be undressed in front of your physician.
If you believe your abnormal discharge is a sign of a sexually transmitted disease, getting tested helps you know your health and get treatment. Through STDcheck, you can skip the hassle of a doctor’s appointment by ordering STD tests online and visiting a lab near you for a quick sample collection.
Treatment depends on what’s causing your abnormal discharge. With any treatment, you should take the full prescribed course, even if symptoms go away. If you are prescribed any creams, you should ask your prescribing physician if it can weaken latex condoms or protective barriers for safe sex.
Yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter medication. There are different types, including creams, ointments, and suppositories (medication you can insert into the vagina). A doctor may also prescribe an oral antifungal pill.
Unfortunately, about 5% of women get four or more yeast infections per year (recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis, or RVVC). If you experience recurrent infections, you should talk to your doctor to help prescribe an ongoing, effective treatment.11
Bacterial vaginosis can be treated with prescription antibiotics. This can include an oral pill or a topical gel or cream. Recurrent BV is common, so you should talk to your doctor if symptoms happen again because retreatment may be necessary.12
Most STDs are easily treatable. For example, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis are curable through prescription antibiotics. If you test positive, our doctors are here to help with consultation and prescription. To avoid further spread of the infection and serious health complications, you and your partner(s) should get tested and treated before you have sex again.
Here are some tips to prevent vaginal infections and irritation, which can cause abnormal discharge:
Medically Reviewed by Kaci Durbin, MD, MBA, FACOG on June 26, 2023Written by Taysha on January 20, 2020