Vaginal discharge is part of the territory that comes with having a vagina. Odds are you don’t really pay attention to your vaginal discharge colors until you notice an unusual shade.
You probably already know this, but JIC: Vaginal discharge is the fluid that comes from your vagina. It is composed of secretions from the cervix and vagina, bacteria, and mucus, says Loriana Soma, MD, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Discharge isn’t just there for fun—it actually has a job to do. "It serves to clean the vagina and prevent infection,” says women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD. “Glands inside the vagina and cervix expel fluid that aids in the removal of dead cells and bacteria.”
So it’s totally normal to have vaginal discharge. Know that it can vary throughout your menstrual cycle. “During menstruation, there is minimal discharge,” Dr. Soma says. “It can then be brown—due to old blood—after the period finishes. The days after the period can have less discharge, and it may be sticky.” When you’re fertile (in the few days before you ovulate), your cervical mucus and discharge may appear slippery, thin, clear, and have an egg-white consistency. After ovulation, you may have less discharge and the liquid you do see takes on a thicker consistency.
That said, sometimes a funky color can be a sign that something is off. “The most common cause of abnormal discharge is infection,” Dr. Soma notes. “Changes in vaginal discharge also occur in pregnancy, menopause, and also when patients are on birth control pills.”
You may notice differences in consistency and volume, as well as the appearance of your discharge. Here are the biggies, plus what they can mean.
Meet the experts: Loriana Soma, MD, is a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and has more than 10 years of experience in caring for women with different medical needs.
Jennifer Wider, MD, sits on the medical advisory boards of Cosmopolitan and Health. She is the author of four books focused on women's health, including The Savvy Woman Patient and The New Mom Survival Guide. She has been an invited guest lecturer and workshop presenter at hospitals, women's centers, and colleges across the country.
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, is a practicing gynecologist, and she has held her faculty position as clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University School of Medicine for more than 40 years. She was recognized by Connecticut Magazine as a "Top Doc" in the state.
Clear vaginal discharge is usually what most people with a vagina experience at baseline, says Dr. Wider. So, if you’re having clear discharge, everything is probably in good working order down there.
White discharge can be normal—especially as you get closer to the time when your period is due—but it can also be a sign of an infection, like a yeast infection, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecologist and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School. “Yeast infections usually present with a white, cottage-cheesy discharge and itching—usually on the vulva, which also can be red and irritated,” she says.
If you have these symptoms, you can try to treat yourself with an anti-fungal miconazole cream, which you can buy at your local drugstore. But, if that doesn’t help, it’s time to check in with your doctor.
This is another one that falls into the category of “it depends.” “A slight yellow color can be normal,” says Dr. Soma, but thick yellow discharge may be a sign of infections like cervicitis (an infection of the cervix) or pelvic inflammatory disease, which affects the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. Other potential diagnoses in the mix: The STIs trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia.
Basically, if you notice thick yellow discharge that won’t quit and are experiencing other symptoms like a strong vaginal odor, itchiness, irritation, and pain during urination and/or sex, you should talk to your doctor about next steps.
That’s usually abnormal, says Dr. Wider, especially if you also experience a strong odor, inflammation, swelling, itchiness, and a burning sensation. Green discharge can be a sign of trichomoniasis, which tends to come with a stinky fish kind of scent, Dr. Minkin says. So…get it checked out. It can be treated with antibiotics, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Gray discharge is a common presenting symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV), per Dr. Soma, and it's “typically malodorous.”
“Besides the annoyance, the overgrowth of the bacteria responsible for this discharge can lead to a worsening of STIs and women with BV when they get pregnant have a higher chance of preterm labor,” Dr. Minkin says. “So, it's good to treat BV, not only for its annoying discharge, but because of these potential problems.” Thankfully, it can usually be cleared up with antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Pink discharge is usually due to “light bleeding” from your uterus or cervix, says Dr. Soma, adding that it “can be the start or end of a normal period.” But, if it happens after sex, it can be a sign of cervicitis or cervical dysplasia, abnormal cervical cells that can be pre-cancerous or cervical cancer.
“If the discharge seems blood-tinged, do check in with your provider,” Dr. Minkin suggests. It can also be a sign of an STI, she says, so you’ll want to get it checked out regardless if it’s not happening right before or after your period.
When should you see a doctor?
If you’re having discharge that’s not normal for you and you have concerns, reach out to your doctor. Ditto if you’re having thick white or yellow discharge, or you’re dealing with green or gray discharge.
Symptoms like itchiness, burning, odors, and swelling are also signals that something is off with your vagina, Dr. Wider says. Basically, don’t hesitate to get things checked out.
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