Vaginal Discharge: What's "normal"?
Highlights from this article:
- Vaginal discharge is common and healthy.
- Vaginal discharge changes with your menstrual cycle.
- Keep an eye on differences in color, consistency, odor, and amount of your discharge, compared to what’s normal for you.
- Atypical vaginal discharge may be a symptom of a microbial imbalance, an infection or an STI. In rare cases, it may indicate something more serious.
- One way to prevent unusual discharge is to better understand and care for your vaginal microbiome
Your vagina is amazing.
(Okay, we’re biased — but you should be too!)
Among many other things, your vagina has the unique ability to self-clean — but not quite without leaving a trace. That’s where vaginal discharge comes in.
Vaginal discharge is fluid from the cervix and vagina that helps clear out old cells and keep your reproductive tract clean. Aside from menstrual blood, practically any fluid leaving the vagina (including cervical mucus and natural lubrication) can be characterized as vaginal discharge.
Not only is vaginal discharge common and healthy, but it can also be a very important indicator of your overall vaginal health.
What is “normal” vaginal discharge?
When it comes to the human body, the word “normal” is tricky — what’s normal for you might be atypical for your sister or a friend. But many factors can influence the quantity, consistency, and color of your vaginal discharge, and there are a few things you can keep in mind as you figure out your “normal.”
In a healthy vagina, vaginal discharge will consist primarily of the mucus produced by the cells of the cervix (also known as cervical mucus, or CM for short) and will naturally change over the course of your hormonal cycle. It’s common for vaginal fluid to increase in volume the closer you are to ovulation, which makes monitoring the consistency and quantity of your discharge on an ongoing basis a good way to keep track of general fertility. Note that if you take hormonal birth control, you might not be able to see these changes.
Typically speaking, normal vaginal discharge will follow a monthly pattern of:
- Dry — following menstruation, there may be little to no cervical mucus or discharge present
- Sticky and White — as estrogen levels rise, CM becomes sticky and pasty (often crumbly and white when dried)
- Thin and Creamy/Milky— as the water content increases throughout your cycle, CM can more closely be compared to the texture of lotion
- Slippery/Stretchy and Clear — just prior to ovulation, when the female body is at peak fertility, CM becomes clear and resembles the consistency of egg whites. After ovulation, CM returns to dry and sticky until your next period and the cycle continues.
What about smell?
When it comes to smell, normal vaginal discharge should be unique but not strong. Any sudden or significant changes in odor potentially indicates an imbalanced microbiome — and may indicate an untreated infection.
Caring for your vaginal health starts with understanding the balance of your microbiome.
Abnormal types of vaginal discharge, based on color:
In addition to smell, it’s important to look out for any big changes in the color of your vaginal discharge.
Grey-ish yellow/white discharge accompanied by a fishy or foul smell, and with or without the presence of genital pain, itching, and burning, can be a sign that something down there is “off.” Most commonly these symptoms are caused by a condition called bacterial vaginosis — aka BV.
BV is the most common cause of infective vaginal discharge, and one in three people with vaginas in the U.S. will experience BV this year.
White and Thick/Chunky
Also referred to as “cottage cheese” discharge, it tends to resemble, well…cottage cheese (this categorization ruined the dairy aisle for us, too.)
This kind of discharge, along with itching, swelling, and redness (particularly around the opening of the vagina), may indicate a yeast infection. One of the main symptomatic differences between yeast infections and BV is the kind of smell: BV is often fishy, while yeast infections are usually odorless or have a slightly soured smell like beer or bread.
Caused by an overgrowth of the Candida albicans fungus, yeast infections affect up to 75% of healthy women at one point or another during their lifetime, so rest assured that you’re not alone.
Frothy yellow discharge, genital itching, burning, and soreness, and a foul smell are all symptoms of a treatable STI called trichomoniasis. However, many individuals with trichomoniasis are completely asymptomatic.
Pink or Brown
Brown discharge is usually nothing more than the result of old blood becoming oxidized, most commonly at the beginning or end of the menstrual cycle. This is perfectly normal and also can differ between cycles.
That said, experiencing any pink or brown discharge that is abnormal for you and your body can be indicative of irregular menstruation, or a sign of something more serious — in any case, talking to a doctor can help.
How to prevent unusual vaginal discharge
Your discharge is often related to how well-balanced your vaginal microbiome is, so one way to normalize your discharge is to take better care of your microbiome.
A general guide to best practices includes:
- drinking enough water
- wearing cotton underwear (or going without!)
- peeing after sex
- avoiding the use of bath bombs or fragranced soaps
- cutting down on sugar and alcoholic drinks
- changing quickly out of wet or sweaty clothes
We know you’ve probably heard these strategies before, and that they don’t always help — it can be frustrating to get the same advice without different results.
A little plug for our test here: this is why we invented the Evvy at-home vaginal microbiome test. By testing and retesting your microbiome over time, you can see how the changes you make in your diet, lifestyle, and self-care routine are impacting your vaginal microbiome’s defense against infection and abnormal vaginal discharge.