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All the Different Kinds of Vaginal Discharge

| 07/06/2021

vaginal discharge Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

TL;DR

  • Discharge is usually normal, but it can be an indicator of an infection.
  • Normal discharge happens after exercise, around ovulation, during or after your period, while aroused—or any time.
  • Abnormal discharge is excessive, smelly, yellow, or green, and can mean you have an STI, bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, hormonal issues, or pregnancy.
  • When in doubt: Talk to a doctor!

Vaginal discharge can be totally normal…or it can be a warning sign of an infection. 

There are many different types of discharge that you may notice over the course of your lifetime, varying in color and texture. It’s useful to be aware of the key changes to look out for and when you should speak to someone. In general, yellow, green, smelly or thick/chunky discharge is a sign of something abnormal going on, like a yeast or bacterial infection. If you notice a strong smell or unusual color, speak to your doctor.

Here’s a guide to the different types and what they might mean.

White discharge

White discharge is usually normal, especially just before and after your period. However, if you feel like there’s a lot of it, or if it looks a bit like cottage cheese and/or starts itching or burning down there, it may well be a yeast infection (thrush). Yeast in the vagina is normal, but the levels can be thrown off and multiply for various reasons such as stress, diabetes, reacting to latex condoms, antibiotics, hormonal birth control, and pregnancy. 

Clear, watery discharge 

This is totally normal, and can happen any time, especially after exercise. Just check occasionally to make sure it doesn’t smell bad (although a slight musk or sweat smell is totally normal).

Clear, silky discharge

Often when we’re turned on, the vagina naturally self-lubricates, creating a slippery clear discharge. We tend to produce less lubrication as we get older, so you can explore artificial lubes to prevent discomfort. Also, some people produce a creamy, silky discharge after orgasm, or ejaculate (squirt) clear, watery liquid during sex, which is completely natural and healthy. 

Discharge is usually normal, but it’s always worth getting checked if you’re worried about any changes.

Clear, eggy discharge 

During ovulation, regular clear or white discharge can get a little thicker, like an egg white. This is usually just ovulation-related cervical fluid (or fertile discharge) and a natural part of your cycle.

Brown or bloody discharge

This kind of discharge is common during or around your period. While your period may usually be bloody, the last few days can sometimes look brown and chunky, which just shows that it’s winding down. Occasionally you might see a bit of bloody discharge between periods, called spotting

Spotting can happen for a variety of reasons, many of them hormonal. If you have irregular periods, like those caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), it can just be part of an irregular menstrual cycle. The contraceptive pill, particularly the progestin-only “mini-pill,” as well as contraceptive IUDs, can sometimes cause bleeding, especially at first. Menopause and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can also cause irregular bloody discharge (and should be checked out).

However, if you’ve recently had unprotected sex and you notice spotting, it may be a sign of early pregnancy. If you’re already pregnant, spotting may be a sign of miscarriage and you should talk to your doctor. 

Brown or bloody discharge between periods can also indicate that there is an infection, like chlamydia or pelvic inflammatory disease (usually accompanied with pelvic pain). It can also be a sign of a more serious issue, like fibroids, abnormal growths in the reproductive system, endometriosis or cervical cancer. This is why it’s so important to have regular pelvic exams and PAP smears to screen for more worrying conditions. 

Green or yellow discharge

Green or yellow discharge is abnormal and should be checked, especially if it’s thick or smelly. Green/yellow discharge is usually caused by a sexually transmitted disease – either gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis, which is caused by a tiny parasite, sometimes accompanied with pain, swelling, and itching. 

Strong-smelling discharge

Normal discharge shouldn’t have a strong or bad smell. If your discharge is watery or white with a strong, fishy smell, it’s probably bacterial vaginosis, an infection that happens when the normal pH balance of the vagina is disrupted. People who smoke, douche, or have multiple sexual partners are at higher risk of BV (though it’s not contagious). Smelly, heavy discharge can also be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease.

When to talk to a doctor

It’s always worth getting checked if you’re worried at all about any changes down there. Definitely make an appointment for a pelvic exam if you have unusual discharge, especially if you have other symptoms at the same time, like fever, pain, fatigue, strange weight loss, or you find you’re peeing more than normal. The doctor will usually examine you and take swabs to test for infection if they suspect there’s anything wrong. 

Take care of your vagina 

To prevent infections, try to keep yourself feeling breezy with loose, cotton underwear and clothing. Refrain from douching or using perfumed products (like fragranced intimate washes) near the area, as that can throw off the pH balance. Practice safer sex and use condoms with new or multiple partners to prevent STIs. If you do get a yeast infection, you can buy over-the-counter creams to clear it up, as well as eating yoghurt and probiotics with live cultures, but talk to a doctor if it’s happening a lot or if it’s a serious case—a dose or two of Diflucan can clear up a powerful infection. Discharge is normal, and varies from person to person, but it’s always good to get peace of mind.

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