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Last updated: Jan 31, 2022
5 min read

Vaginal discharge: what is it, types, what’s normal

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

It’s common to wonder if the fluid discharged from your vagina is normal or not. Vaginal discharge changes throughout the menstrual cycle, so it can be tricky to know whether it’s healthy or a sign of a problem. 

Good news: Most types of vaginal discharge are normal and healthy. Still, some types could be signs of a medical issue that will need treatment. Getting familiar with the different types of vaginal discharge can help you address issues if they arise. Keep reading to learn more.

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What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is the fluid secreted from the glands inside the vagina and cervix. Normal vaginal discharge is sometimes called leukorrhea.  

Vaginal discharge is released daily to clean the vagina by removing old cells, bacteria, and debris. The discharge helps keep the vagina clean and prevents infections.  

The amount of discharge, color, and texture can all change throughout the menstrual cycle and vary from person to person. The fluid is healthy and normal most of the time, but getting in tune with what’s normal for you can help you identify when something might be off. 

Vaginal discharge during the menstrual cycle

The color and consistency of vaginal discharge will change throughout the menstrual cycle. Here are some of the changes you may notice throughout the month:

  • During your period, discharge appears red and bloody from the shedding of the uterine lining.
  • Between your period and leading up to ovulation, discharge may feel slightly sticky and become a cloudy, whitish, or yellowish color.
  • During the days around ovulation, discharge often becomes thinner, more slippery, and clearer in color.
  • After ovulation and leading up to the next period, discharge typically becomes stickier, and you may notice less of it.

Other types of vaginal discharge

Sometimes, you may notice changes to your vaginal discharge that could signify something is going on that shouldn’t be. Here are some of the types of vaginal discharge that may indicate an infection or health problem:

Gray vaginal discharge

If your vaginal discharge becomes a light whitish-gray or dark gray color, it’s often a symptom of a bacterial infection. Bacterial vaginosis is a common problem that’s usually treatable with antibiotics prescribed by a healthcare provider. 

With bacterial vaginosis, discharge usually has a fish-like odor, typically one of the first symptoms noticed. Other symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include (Kairys, 2021): 

  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Strong fishy odor
  • Frothy discharge
  • Redness around the vaginal opening and vulva
  • Pain or burning sensation around and in the vagina

White vaginal discharge

White discharge is often normal and a sign of healthy lubrication. However, if other symptoms accompany it, it could be a sign of an infection. For example, a thick, clumpy white discharge is often a sign of a vaginal yeast infection

Symptoms of a yeast infection include (Arya, 2021):

  • Thick, white, cottage-cheese like discharge
  • Itching
  • Pain or burning sensation, especially during sex or while peeing
  • Redness

Yellow or green vaginal discharge

If your vaginal discharge is only slightly yellowish, it’s likely a normal, healthy discharge. 

However, if it’s a darker shade of yellow, green, or a mix of yellow and green, it’s typically considered abnormal vaginal discharge and could be a sign of an infection (aka vaginitis, or infection of the vagina). This could be a bacterial infection or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) like gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or trichomonas. 

Contact your healthcare provider if you notice this type of discharge. Vaginitis may cause other symptoms like (Hildebrand, 2021):

  • Itching or irritation in the genital area
  • Pain during urination
  • Pain or discomfort during sex
  • Pelvic pain
  • Foul smell
  • Burning sensation

Pink vaginal discharge

Pink discharge is usually a sign that normal vaginal fluid has mixed with a little blood. Pink discharge often happens right before a period begins. It can also be an early sign of pregnancy and implantation. 

Some people experience a small amount of spotting around ovulation, which can show up as pink discharge. Discharge may also become pink after sex if some irritation or minor tears were made in the vagina or cervix. 

Red vaginal discharge

Most of the time, red discharge happens due to bleeding during the menstrual period. 

Typically, people experience menstrual bleeding every 21–35 days, depending on their cycle length. Periods usually last 3–7 days. 

After giving birth, it’s normal to experience red discharge for a few days to weeks while healing. 

If you experience bleeding between periods, contact your healthcare provider. It could be just an irregular period from stress or hormonal changes, but more serious medical problems could cause irregular bleeding, too. 

Anyone who has gone through menopause, meaning they’ve gone at least 12 months without a period, should contact their healthcare provider if they experience vaginal bleeding. 

Some more serious possible causes of vaginal bleeding other than menstrual periods include (Jeanmonod, 2021):

  • Cervical infection or tear
  • Cervical polyp
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Cervical cancer

In other words, it’s important to rule these out if you experience unusual bleeding not related to your period.

Vaginal discharge during pregnancy

During pregnancy and ovulation, you may notice more of the healthy type of vaginal discharge called leukorrhea. Healthy discharge during pregnancy and ovulation before periods should be thin, clear or milky white, and mild smelling.

Your discharge will likely change during pregnancy, but how much depends on genetics and varies from person to person. Still, changes in discharge are expected during pregnancy because of changing hormones, like estrogen. You’ll likely notice progressively more discharge throughout your pregnancy.  

Why does vaginal discharge smell?

Because there are sweat glands around the groin and debris in discharge, it’s normal for vaginal discharge to have a slight odor. 

The exact odor varies between individuals, but it commonly has a slight musky odor. The smell of vaginal discharge may change slightly during your menstrual cycle. If you notice a strong odor, it could be a sign of a problem, like a bacterial or yeast infection, so it’s a good idea to get that checked out with your healthcare provider. 

When to see your healthcare provider

If the smell or appearance of vaginal discharge changes drastically, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. Gray, yellowish-green, clumpy white, bleeding not during your period, and foul odors may be signs of a health problem. 

Other symptoms you may experience along with abnormal discharge include:

  • Pain or burning sensations while peeing or during sexual intercourse
  • Vaginal itching
  • Pain, soreness, or burning sensations
  • Redness
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Fever

Contact your gynecologist or primary care provider if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or abnormal discharge. 

References

  1. Arya, N. R. & Rafiq, N. B. (2021). Candidiasis. [Updated Aug 13, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Jan. 25, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560624/
  2. Hildebrand, J. P. & Kansagor, A. T. (2021). Vaginitis. [Updated Nov 21, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Jan. 25, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470302/ 
  3. Jeanmonod, R., Skelly, C. L., & Agresti, D. (2021). Vaginal bleeding. [Updated Jul 21, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Jan. 25, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470230/ 
  4. Kairys, N. & Garg, M. (2021). Bacterial vaginosis. [Updated Jul 18, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Jan. 25, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459216/