Vaginal Discharge: Causes, Colors, And Consistency

Vaginal Discharge: Causes, Colors, And Consistency

Vaginal Discharge: Causes, Colors, And Consistency

Getting To Know Your Normal Vaginal Discharge Can Help You Determine If Something's Off

Written by: Moriah Engelberg & Medically reviewed by: Danielle LeBlanc, RN specializing in reproductive health 

 

The Highlights

  • “Normal” vaginal discharge is different for everyone and depends on where you are in your cycle. If your discharge smells funky, looks off, and/ or you’re experiencing pain, swelling, itchiness or other vaginal discomfort, get in touch with your health provider.
  • A vagina self-regulates and keeps itself clean, but our lifestyle can easily throw the delicate ecosystem outta whack. Try to avoid wearing wet clothing for too long [think bikini bottoms and sweaty leggings], practice safe sex, and wear breathable materials like cotton or bamboo to protect your vagina.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics can help keep your vaginal balance in check (3). You can take pills or incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet, like fermented kimchi, sauerkraut, or yogurt.

  

The Full Read

You’re sitting on the toilet and just finished peeing. You look down as you pull your panties up and you see… wait, what is that F is that stuff in on your cute lacy panties?!  

That’s your vaginal discharge, aka leukorrhea! What is vaginal discharge, you ask? Vaginal discharge is a general term for fluids secreted through the vagina. Ever heard of cervical fluid or cervical mucus? It’s what the cervix produces throughout the cycle to help facilitate or prevent egg fertilization. And guess what? Vaginal discharge includes your cervical fluid, but it also consists of vaginal fluids, bacteria, gland secretions, and shed vaginal cells (1,2). Yum!

Most of us have likely felt some embarrassment around our discharge at some point, and maybe even hid our underwear from a partner or sex buddy. But the truth is, vaginal discharge is your vagina’s superpowers because it does so much for our bodies! 

What Are Your Vaginal Discharge Superpowers?

  • Cleans the vagina and keeps vaginal tissue healthy (1).
  • Helps keep our vaginal pH (aka acidity levels) in check, which is important for infection prevention (9). 
  • Provides lubrication au naturale [bow-chicka wow-wow!].
  • Protects against irritation (1).
  • Assists sperm through the vaginal canal during conception [aka getting pregnant] (9). 
  • Helps create the mucus plug when you are pregnant to help protect the baby (14).

Variations of Vaginal Discharge

So what should your discharge look like? Every body’s normal discharge is a bit different, and it can depend on your menstrual cycle phase. Some never see discharge on their underwear and others see discharge all the time. Getting familiar with your version of normal is key because your fluids can clue you in to your body’s overall wellbeing. It’s one way in which your body talks to you! To get down with your fluids, in addition to checking your underwear, you can put clean fingers inside your vagina, then pull out, and rub between your thumb and forefinger to get a sense of the consistency. You can also wipe your vagina BEFORE you pee and look at the toilet paper. 

So What Does Healthy Vaginal Discharge May Look, Feel, and Smell Like?

  • Dry and/ or minimal: This type of discharge usually occurs after menstruation or at the end of the luteal phase (post-ovulation). This discharge is typically odorless unless you’ve worked up a sweat or need a quick rinse. 
  • Thin + watery: Ever feel like you peed yourself a little or like you just got your period but there’s no blood? This type of discharge could also make your underwear feel damp and typically occurs between the end of your period and before ovulation occurs (16). While this discharge is also typically odorless (unless you’ve worked up a sweat), sometimes a sour smell may accompany it.  This smell relates to a change in your vaginal pH; it does not necessarily indicate infection (3). 
  • Milky + white OR creamy + white: This type of discharge usually occurs before ovulation and, for some, indicates the start of their fertile window. 
  • Thicker, stretchy, and/or stringy: Not everybody experiences this, but for those who do this is likely your most-fertile time. That stretchy, egg-white consistency is what helps sperm stay alive long enough to swim through the vaginal canal.  
  • Pinkish: When you see pink in your discharge, it usually indicates that some blood has been added to your personal brew. Spotting can occur for many different reasons: that you’re ovulating, that your period is coming or ending, or that you’re pregnant (16). 
  • Reddish or brown: This is an indication that you are excreting some blood, but the darker color usually means that the blood is older. It’s common to see this kind of discharge either just before or right after your period (5). This type of discharge can have a metallic or coppery smell (5) which is a-ok.   
  • Discharge that bleaches your underwear: This can happen sometimes! Danielle LeBlanc, a Registered Nurse who works at a clinic for STIs/ STDs and sexual health, shared with us that vaginas are naturally on the acidic side which can cause that bleach effect. However, it’s definitely possible for there to be too much acidity, something that may be corrected with diet if it bothers you.

While the body has a lot of underappreciated defense mechanisms in place to help keep us healthy, sometimes they need some extra support thanks to everyday stress. Changes in our discharge can mean our body is sending us an SOS.  The good news is that most of the underlying causes are easily treatable.  But, if you let them go too long without proper care, they could cause serious health complications, so don’t procrastinate getting in touch with your doctor if you notice your discharge has been getting funky.

When You Should Take Action:

  • Thick +  white +clumpy (aka cottage-cheese discharge):  Not the most pleasant-sounding (or feeling), we know.  But this kind of discharge usually comes with itching, burning, soreness, and irritation and typically indicates a yeast infection due to an imbalance of bacteria in the vaginal flora (3)(4).
  • Grayish OR off-white with a fishy smell: These signs usually indicate bacterial vaginosis (BV), but it can also indicate trichomoniasis, another infection, or an STI/ STD (3). The fishy odor tends to accompany BV, whereas “trich” may be more frothy in consistency and not necessarily “fishy” but still unpleasant-smelling. 
  • Increased amount+ off-smelling: An increase in off-smelling vaginal discharge, (along with symptoms like lower back pain, fever, pain during sex) can indicate Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) (5). PID is a common and treatable infection in your uterus, fallopian tubes, and/or ovaries (5). However, if left untreated it can cause serious health complications. If you think you have PID symptoms, contact your health practitioner ASAP. 
  • Greenish-yellowish: If you notice that your discharge has a green or yellow tint to it, it could indicate an STI/ STD or another infection. it’s important you get in touch with your doctor ASAP it(6). 

How Do You Manage Vaginal Discharge?

  • Wear breathable, 100% cotton or bamboo underwear to allow your vagina to breathe. Moisture + warmth can provide a good breeding ground for bacteria. Try sleeping without underwear. Your vagina might thank you.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics can help keep your vaginal balance in check (3). You can take pills or incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet, like fermented kimchi, sauerkraut, or yogurt.
  • For your vagina’s sake, change out of your wet/damp/sweaty clothing ASAP!  (4).
  • Keep some over-the-counter pH strips on hand to test the acidity of your vagina if you’re feeling like something feels off (a higher pH might indicate infection).
  • For those who can’t get to a clinic so easily, they now have vaginal health and STI/ STD tests that you can purchase and take from the comfort of your home which could be a helpful diagnostic tool.  

Ready to sleep commando yet?! 



 




Citations: 

  1. “Vaginal Discharge.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, February 14, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/definition/sym-20050825.
  2. Jacobson, John D, and David Zieve. “Vaginal Discharge: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed March 22, 2020. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/17138.htm.
  3. De Seta, Francesco and Superti, Fabiana. “Warding Off Recurrent Yeast and Bacterial Vaginal Infections: Lactoferrin and Lactobacilli,” Microorganisms 8 no.1 (2020): 130 doi: 10.3390/microorganisms8010130 
  4. “Yeast infection (vaginal).” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, July 16, 2019
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999 
  5. “Pelvic Inflammatory Disease: Signs of PID Infection .” Planned Parenthood, n.d. Parenthood, Planned. Accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/pelvic-inflammatory-disease-pid. 
  6. “Odd Color or Odor? What Your Vaginal Discharge Can Tell You.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, February 19, 2020. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/vaginal-discharge-mean/ 
  7.  Parenthood, Planned. “What Are the Symptoms & Signs of Gonorrhea?” Planned Parenthood. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/gonorrhea/what-are-symptoms-gonorrhea.
  8.  Parenthood, Planned. “What Are the Symptoms & Signs of Chlamydia?” Planned Parenthood. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/chlamydia/chlamydia-symptoms.
  9. Parenthood, Planned. “What Is the Cervical Mucus Method?: Cycle, Stages & Chart.” Planned Parenthood. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness/whats-cervical-mucus-method-fams.
  10. Brown, L Nancy and Teens Participating in the Summer Wellness Programs. “Vaginal Discharge.” Sutter Health. 2013 https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/teens/female/vaginal-discharge
  11. Parenthood, Planned. “Female Sexual Anatomy: Vulva, Vagina and Breasts.” Planned Parenthood. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/sexual-and-reproductive-anatomy/what-are-parts-female-sexual-anatomy.
  12. Levin, RJ. “The Physiology of sexual arousal in the human female: a recreational and procretional synthesis.” Archive of Sexual Behavior 31 no.5 (2002):405. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12238607
  13. “Abnormal Uterine Bleeding.” ACOG. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, March 2017. https://www.acog.org/patient-resources/faqs/gynecologic-problems/abnormal-uterine-bleeding.
  14.  “Vaginal discharge during pregnancy.” Pregnancy, Birth and Baby. Pregnancy Birth and Baby on Behalf of the Department of Health, October 2018
    https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/vaginal-discharge-during-pregnancy
  15.  “Cervical Mucus Monitoring.” Time to Conceive. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.med.unc.edu/timetoconceive/study-participant-resources/cervical-mucus-testing-information/.
  16. “What Is Implantation Bleeding?” American Pregnancy Association, March 5, 2020. https://americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/what-is-implantation-bleeding/.


 

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