Vaginal discharge serves an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix carry away dead cells and bacteria. This keeps the vagina clean and helps prevent infection.
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary, as can odor and color (which can range from clear to a milky whitish), depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. For example, there will be more discharge when you are ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused. It may smell different when you are pregnant, or you've been letting your personal hygiene slide. None of those changes is cause for alarm. However, if the color, smell, or consistency seems quite different than usual, especially if you also have vaginal itching or burning, you could be dealing with an infection or other condition.
What causes abnormal discharge?
- Antibiotic or steroid use
- Bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection more common in pregnant women or women who have multiple sexual partners
- Birth control pills
- Cervical cancer
- Chlamydia or gonorrhea (STDs), sexually transmitted infections
- Douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
- Pelvic infection after surgery
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Trichomoniasis, a parasitic infection typically contracted and caused by having unprotected sex
- Vaginal atrophy, the thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during menopause
- Vaginitis, irritation in or around the vagina
- Yeast infections
Types of discharge:
- Thick, white discharge represents normal discharge. If you have other symptoms, such as itching, burning, and irritation consult a doctor right away.
- Yellow discharge is abnormal discharge. It is a sign of bacterial infection or sexually transmitted infection.
- Brown discharge may be caused my irregular period cycles. Sometimes brown discharge arises as a woman goes off or on her period. If brown discharge keeps appearing this could be a sign of cervical cancer.
- Green discharge is not normal. It is a sign of bacterial infection or sexually transmitted infection.
- Yeast infection discharge is a thick, white, cottage cheese like discharge, along with itching, redness, irritation and burning.
Tips to take heed:
- Keep the vagina clean by washing with a gentle, mild soap and warm water on the outside. There is no need to put soap directly in the vagina. Essence of Nature offers a vaginal wash, “WET” that is pH balanced for the vagina.
- Never use fragranced soaps and feminine products or douche. Also avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths with fragrances.
- After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into the vagina and causing an infection.
- Wear 100% cotton underpants and avoid overly tight clothing.
Stay aware of changes in your body any abnormal behaviors. Seek medical attention; don’t prolong your doctor’s appointments; it can make matters worse.
Let’s be real. We’ve all had that moment when we’ve pulled down our pants in the bathroom, seen a different color than usual, and asked, “Is that normal?” which is often followed by questions like “Is it the time of the month?” and “What did I eat this week?” and even “How was the sex last night?”
The comforting news is that many colors are normal. Even if you know you’re in the clear, what do these colors actually mean, anyway?
Well, wonder no longer. We put together a color guide that’s not only medically accurate, but fun to look at. And even though there’s usually nothing to worry about, skip to the See a Doctor section if you’re concerned.
Here’s your Pantone guide to vaginal discharge.Blood red to dried brown
Red or brown bloody discharge is normal during your period. 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 a health issue, like an infection.Reasons for red or brown discharge
Irregular menstrual cycle or spotting: Some women simply have irregular periods and spotting. Other women experience spotting due to their birth control method or hormonal changes.Cream and milky white
A variety of white shades of discharge, from eggshell to cream, can be normal. Unless your discharge is accompanied by certain textures or smells, don’t fret too much.Reasons for white discharge
Vaginal lubrication: White discharge occurs for many of the same reasons as clear discharge. It’s simply natural lubrication, keeping your vaginal tissue healthy and minimizing friction during sex.Pale yellow to neon green
Very light yellow discharge is more normal than you think. Sometimes the color is daffodil yellow. Other times it’s more of a greener chartreuse.Reasons for yellow-green discharge
Look to your diet or any supplements you may be taking: This color is usually a sign of an infection, but if you know you’re 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.Blushed deep pink
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
Sexual intercourse:Some women may periodically experience light bleeding after intercourse, which can result in pink discharge.Clear
Clear discharge, which can also be whitish in color, is usually normal. It may have an egg-white like consistency. It’s also the go-to discharge a healthy body expels to rebalance itself — because your vagina is an amazing, self-cleaning organ.Reasons for clear discharge
Ovulation: Is it about day 14 of your cycle? You’re probably ovulating and producing cervical mucus.
Pregnancy:Pregnancy can also cause a change in hormones and increase how much discharge you have.
Sexual arousal: The blood vessels in your vagina dilate and fluid passes through them, causing an increase in clear, watery discharge. Totally normal.Storm cloud gray
When white turns to gray, like storm clouds or exhaust, see your doctor or call your OB-GYN. It could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV),which isa very common infection in women. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibacterial ointments or oral antibiotics.So when should I see a doctor?
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.
Make an appointment with your doctor anytime your discharge is accompanied by these symptoms or signs:
- burning sensation while you pee
- a strong, foul odor
- frothy texture
- thick, cottage cheese texture
- vaginal bleeding
- gray in color
- bleeding that’s unrelated to your period
Here’s what the potential medical issues may be for each color:
desquamative inflammatory vaginitis (DIV)
Sometimes these issues — like gonorrhea or chlamydia — can be eliminated based on your situation if you’ve never had sex. It’s always a good idea to get a checkup if you can’t pinpoint a cause or seem unsure of your health status.Bottom Line:
You might not always think of it this way, but vaginal discharge is pretty amazing. Healthy discharge keeps the vagina clean, wards off infections, and provides lubrication. It changes with your body’s needs. For example, discharge increases during sex to prevent discomfort and irritation and thickens during ovulation to help sperm on their journey to the egg.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a range of shades and amounts of vaginal discharge is considered normal and varies from person to person. That’s why we created this color guide to show you how wild this range can get.
But your vaginal discharge is also a reflection of your health. Watch for discharge that occurs unexpectedly, which can be a sign of infection or disease. If your discharge changes significantly in color, consistency, amount, or smell, you might want to schedule an appointment with your gynecologist. Likewise, if your discharge is accompanied with an itch or pelvic pain, it’s time to see your doctor.
National Institutes of Health: ''What is Vaginitis?''
American Family Physician, 2004; vol 69: pp 2191-2192.
Mitchell, H. BMJ, 2004; vol 328: pp 1306-1308.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: ''Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2010.''
Written by Sarah Aswell — Updated on December 3, 2018
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