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Vaginal discharge: causes, colors, and your questions answered

Vaginal discharge is a normal function of your body. But, just like your period, the topic is sometimes treated as taboo, so we don’t talk about it enough. You may have many questions about vaginal discharge, and although you have nothing to be embarrassed about, it can be difficult to discuss out loud. Not to worry, we’re here to help! 

Vaginal discharge can tell us much about our reproductive health, so let’s review everything you need to know about causes, colors, and other frequently asked questions.

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is fluid secreted by tiny glands in your vagina and cervix. This secretion occurs daily to maintain the health and cleanliness of your reproductive tract as the discharge helps remove old cells and unwanted bacteria (1). The vagina is self-cleaning, and discharge is part of its normal housekeeping process. 

You will generally experience vaginal discharge starting before puberty, a year or two prior, until you hit menopause. However, the amount of discharge will change over your lifetime and can even vary at different stages of your menstrual cycle. For example, discharge levels can increase during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and ovulation (2). The color and odor of your vaginal discharge may also vary, so it’s essential to understand what types of vaginal discharge are normal and which are cause for concern.

Types of vaginal discharge

Clear

Clear vaginal discharge is normal. You may experience clear discharge when sexually aroused, pregnant, or ovulating (3). Texture may vary, as the discharge can be thin and watery or thicker and sticky. When your discharge is mucus-like, this usually is a sign you are ovulating.
 

White

White vaginal discharge, like clear, is normal. When your discharge is clear, white, or off-white and doesn’t have a strong odor, these are signs of a healthy reproductive system functioning normally. Many commonly experience white discharge at the beginning and end of their period.

Brown

Sometimes, you’ll encounter brown discharge towards the start of your period due to your period blood tinting your normal discharge. But if you notice brown discharge at other points of your cycle, it could be a sign of infection (1), and you should consider consulting your doctor.

Yellow

Yellow vaginal discharge is normal when it is light yellow. However, darker yellow, cloudy discharge that is cottage cheese-like in texture could be a sign of bacterial infection or a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Green

Similar to yellow, green vaginal discharge could also be a potential sign of bacterial infection or STI (4). Infections may also have symptoms such as itchiness, unpleasant smell, or a burning sensation. If you suspect an infection, consult a medical professional and get tested.

 

Vaginal Discharge FAQ

Is vaginal discharge normal?

Yes, vaginal discharge is normal. When the discharge is clear or white in appearance, this is a sign that your reproductive tract is healthy and functioning as expected. The color, texture, and amount of discharge you experience will vary at different points of your menstrual cycle and throughout your lifetime.

What causes vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge results from a healthy bodily function that maintains the cleanliness of your reproductive tract by removing dead cells and bacteria from your vagina. The fluctuation of your estrogen levels causes discharge and occurs naturally throughout your cycle. You may notice more discharge when ovulating, breastfeeding, sexually aroused, or taking birth control pills. Each of these activities changes your levels of estrogen.

Why does my vaginal discharge smell?

Normal vaginal discharge should be mostly odorless. Vaginal discharge with an unusual smell, texture, or color could indicate a possible bacterial infection or an STI. Bacterial vaginitis is the most common vaginal infection that may cause discharge, affecting nearly 21 million women between the ages of 14 to 49 years old (5). Vaginitis occurs when your vagina’s natural bacteria becomes imbalanced, often due to having a new sex partner, multiple sex partners, unprotected sex, or douching.

Is vaginal discharge a sign of pregnancy?

Yes and no. While vaginal discharge can increase during pregnancy, not all discharge is a sign of pregnancy. Pregnant or not, you will experience normal amounts of vaginal discharge throughout your menstrual cycle, especially during ovulation. If you suspect you may be pregnant, it is always a good idea to take a pregnancy test or consult your doctor.

How much vaginal discharge is normal?

Studies show the average amount of vaginal discharge is between 1 to 4 ml daily (6). If you have a higher amount of vaginal discharge, that is not necessarily a cause for concern. As we’ve covered, increased amounts of vaginal discharge are normal depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. You need only be concerned if your discharge has a fishy smell, is an unusual color, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as itching or burning.

Discharge is a very normal process for those of us who menstruate. Remember, if anything seems off or you have any questions at all, your personal doctor will be your best resource.

References

  1. Galan, Nicole. A color-coded guide to vaginal discharge. Medical News Today. [Internet]. January 2020. [Cited 2022 August 31]. Available from:https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322232#outlook

  2. English National Health Services. Vaginal discharge in pregnancy. NHS UK. [Internet]. March 2021. [Cited 2022 August 31]. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/vaginal-discharge/

  3. Sharkey, Lauren. Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Discharge. Healthline. [Internet]. June 2022. [Cited 2022 August 31]. Available from:  https://www.healthline.com/health/vaginal-discharge#what-it-is

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Vaginal Discharge. Cleveland Clinic. [Internet]. July 2022. [Cited 2022 August 31]. Available from:  https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/4719-vaginal-discharge

  5. The Hologic Team. Understanding Vaginitis in Women. The American Association for Clinical Chemistry. [Internet]. December 2019. [Cited 2022 September 1]. Available from:  https://www.aacc.org/cln/cln-industry-insights/2019/understanding-vaginitis-in-women

  6. Thomason, Khristine. Is Vaginal Discharge Is Normal? And How Much Is Too Much? Health. [Internet]. May 2017. [Cited 2022 September 1]. Available from:  https://www.health.com/condition/sexual-health/vaginal-discharge

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