Vaginal discharge can tell you a lot about your health. While most discharge is normal and harmless, certain changes may signal an underlying issue.
Learning to recognize when discharge is abnormal can help you detect problems early and get proper treatment when needed.
Although discussing vaginal discharge may feel uncomfortable, it’s an important aspect of women’s health. Being informed about your own body empowers you to seek care. With some basic knowledge, you’ll know when to see your doctor about any concerns related to vaginal discharge.
What is Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge is a normal, healthy vaginal secretion composed of cervical mucus, vaginal fluid, shedding vaginal cells, and bacteria. All women produce vaginal discharge starting a year or two before puberty.
Normal vaginal discharge varies in color, texture, and amount throughout the menstrual cycle:
- At the start and end of the cycle, discharge is usually thick, whitish, and minimal.
- Around ovulation, cervical mucus increases, becoming wetter, clearer, and more slippery or stretchy. This helps sperm survive their journey.
- Discharge may turn white or yellow again right before your period. The texture is thicker and the amount greater.
- Color can also vary from clear to white, off-white, or pale yellow. Spotting of blood may occur mid-cycle during ovulation.
- Discharge usually feels wet for most of the cycle. At times it can be sticky, tacky, or glue-like.
- The amount ranges from around 1-4 tablespoons per day. Larger amounts are normal as long as it’s not excessive.
As long as the discharge appears typical for your cycle, has no strong odor, and doesn’t cause itching or irritation, it’s usually normal.
When Discharge May Indicate a Problem
Vaginal discharge is common and normal. However, there are times when changes in your discharge may signal an underlying issue. Here are some key things to watch out for:
- Color – Healthy discharge is usually clear, white, or off-white. Yellow, green, or grey discharge could indicate an infection. Bloody or rust-colored discharge may point to bleeding in the reproductive tract.
- Smell – Regular discharge often has a mild or non-existent odor. A fishy, foul, or unpleasant smell may mean bacterial vaginosis or another infection.
- Texture – Discharge is generally thin and slippery, with a consistency like egg whites. Thick, clumpy, or cottage cheese-like discharge might mean a yeast infection. Watery discharge could point to bacterial vaginosis.
- Amount – Normal discharge varies during the menstrual cycle. Much heavier discharge than usual or discharge that persists regardless of cycle stage may require examination.
Changes like these are not necessarily serious, but they do warrant bringing them up with your doctor. Some may clear up with over-the-counter treatments, while others may require a prescription. It’s always a good idea to get checked out whenever your discharge seems abnormal.
Sign #1 – Unusual Color
Vaginal discharge is typically clear, white, or off-white. However, certain colors can indicate an underlying problem.
Green or yellow: These colors often signify an infection like bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis. The discharge may also smell bad.
Gray: This can occur when discharge mixes with menstrual blood or in the case of gonorrhea.
Pink: Some light pink discharge can happen right before a period starts. However, any bright pink, red, or brown discharge could indicate bleeding inside the vagina and requires a medical examination.
Black or dark brown: Old blood that has been present for some time before being expelled can appear black or dark brown. This warrants seeing a doctor.
If you notice any of these unusual colors in your vaginal discharge, make an appointment with your doctor for evaluation. Some colors like green, yellow, gray, or black almost always mean something is wrong.
Others like pink or dark brown could just be normal spotting but should be checked out to be safe. Don’t ignore strange colors as they can be the first tip-off of an infection, sexually transmitted disease, or another issue needing treatment.
Sign #2 – Strange Smell
Normally, vaginal discharge has a mild, non-offensive scent. However, an unusually strong or foul odor can signify an issue. Some examples of abnormal odors to watch out for:
- Fishy smell – This is the classic symptom of bacterial vaginosis, an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. The fishy odor is usually more noticeable after sex or during your period.
- Yeasty smell – A yeasty, bread-like smell is common with yeast infections like thrush. The odor may be accompanied by itching, redness, and thick, white discharge.
- Metallic smell – Some STDs like trichomoniasis can cause vaginal discharge to smell metallic, almost like copper or ammonia. This needs immediate medical attention.
- Rotten smell – A particularly foul, rotten smell indicates possible trichomoniasis or even a forgotten tampon. This requires prompt evaluation by your gynecologist.
- Sweaty smell – A strong sweaty odor is normal with light spotting during ovulation, but if it persists it could mean an issue like bacterial vaginosis.
Pay attention to any abnormal smells from your vaginal discharge. Discuss any concerns with your doctor, as unusual odors often indicate an infection or imbalance needing treatment. Don’t hesitate to get checked if your discharge has a bothersome or strange smell.
Sign #3 – Change in Texture
Vaginal discharge normally varies in texture and amount throughout the menstrual cycle. But a sudden change in the texture of your discharge may be a red flag that something is not right.
Two texture changes to watch out for are:
Thick, cottage cheese consistency: Discharge that resembles cottage cheese is not normal. This type of discharge is often due to a yeast infection. The thick texture comes from an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina. While small amounts of yeast are normal, an infection causes the yeast to multiply rapidly leading to dense, clumpy discharge.
Foamy texture: Experiencing frothy, bubbly discharge like dish soap can indicate bacterial vaginosis (BV). This overgrowth of bacteria causes the vagina to produce discharge that is grey-white and has a distinctive fishy odor. The bubbly texture comes from higher levels of bacteria and pH changes in the vagina.
Don’t ignore changes in discharge texture – consulting a doctor allows steps to be taken before the problem worsens.
When to See a Doctor?
You should see your doctor if you notice any persistent changes in your vaginal discharge that are accompanied by other symptoms. Some signs it’s time to schedule an appointment include:
- Changes in discharge color, texture, smell that last more than a few days
- Itching, burning, irritation around the vulva
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Pain when urinating
- Unusual vaginal bleeding between periods
- Fever, chills, body aches
Vaginal discharge can vary a bit from day to day based on your menstrual cycle, diet, stress levels, and other factors. However ongoing changes, especially when combined with other symptoms, may indicate an underlying condition that requires medical attention. Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if something seems off. They can help diagnose any issues and get you the proper treatment.
All in all, trust your body and pay attention to changes in vaginal discharge. Seek help if discharge seems abnormal. With prompt diagnosis and the right treatment, you can get back to normal and healthy vaginal functioning.