Vaginal discharge is the fluid produced from the cervix and vagina that helps to get rid of old cells and keep the vagina clean. It's a perfectly normal and healthy process and can also be an essential indicator of your overall sexual health. The color, consistency, and odor of your discharge can be a sign of an underlying problem, like a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Knowing what healthy discharge looks like and changes to look out for can make it easier to spot when something isn't quite right — and when you should do an STI test. Since healthy discharge can look different from person to person, and factors like your cycle, birth control, and even sex can change the appearance of your discharge, you might be wondering, “What does vaginal discharge look like when you have an STI?”
Read on to find out how different sexually transmitted infections can affect your vaginal discharge and how to spot a potential red flag.
What vaginal discharge is normal?
We should start by saying that “normal” vaginal discharge can look different from person to person. Healthy discharge can range from clear and stretchy to white or pale yellow and pasty. Some people produce lots of discharge; some produce less. Some find that their discharge might have a mild smell (completely fine), while others might have discharge that pretty much doesn’t smell like anything. The key is knowing what is normal for you.
It’s also worth noting that the look and quantity of your discharge can change with your menstrual cycle. Discharge is mostly made up of cervical mucus, which is dependent on estrogen levels. As estrogen spikes and dips throughout the month, you might notice changes in your discharge. This is all completely normal.
Around the beginning or end of your period, you might even notice that your discharge is pinkish or brown because of the presence of blood. Meanwhile, around ovulation (about halfway through your cycle), discharge can look like raw egg whites — clear and stretchy. Tracking your discharge and getting real up close and personal with it can help you get to know what your “normal” looks like.
What is STI discharge?
One of the most common signs of an STI is a drastic change in the color, consistency, or smell of your vaginal discharge. Although most STIs are asymptomatic (which means you might not know you have one without getting tested), abnormal vaginal discharge is often a telltale sign of a sexually transmitted infection. STI discharge can sometimes look cloudy, yellow, or green and might even seem frothy or watery with a not-so-pleasant smell.
What STI causes discharge?
Three common STIs — trichomoniasis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea — can cause significant changes in vaginal discharge.
Trichomoniasis, or "trich" for short, is a very common sexually transmitted bacterial infection. Most people with trich don't experience any symptoms, but when they do, a change in their vaginal discharge is right up there. Trichomoniasis discharge can:
- Be yellow, green, or gray
- Have a frothy consistency
- Have a foul or fishy odor
- Increase in quantity.
Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and about 1 in 20 sexually active women aged between 14 to 24 is diagnosed with chlamydia. Although some people may not experience any symptoms, abnormal discharge is one of the common indicators of chlamydia. Discharge caused by chlamydia can:
- Be yellow or white
- Look cloudy or milky
- Have a strong or foul smell
- Be pink, brown, or red in between periods or after having sex (caused by vaginal bleeding)
- Increase in quantity.
Gonorrhea is another pretty common STI. It affects over 1.5 million people every year, with more than half of those cases occurring in young folks aged 15-24. Much like with chlamydia and trichomoniasis, one of the symptoms is abnormal vaginal discharge. Gonorrhea discharge can:
- Be yellow or green
- Look cloudy or milky
- Have a thin or watery consistency
- Increase in quantity.
Other STI signs and symptoms
Unusual discharge isn’t the only sign of an STI. Other symptoms include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- A burning or stinging sensation
- Vaginal itching
- Painful urination
- Needing to pee more frequently
- Spotting or bleeding between periods or after sex
- Pain during sex
- Swollen lymph nodes.
Remember that STIs are notorious for flying under the radar because the symptoms aren't always obvious, so there’s no accurate way of diagnosing an STI just by looking at whether or not you have symptoms. And many STIs don't affect your discharge, including genital herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B, and HIV infection.
Getting screened for STIs is the only real way to detect (and treat) an infection — even if you don't have any noticeable symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that sexually active adults should get an STI test at least once a year (if they're in an exclusive relationship) or every three months if they have multiple sex partners.
We know that taking an STI test can feel like a chore (and a nerve-wracking one at that), but routine screening is the most effective way of reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Most STIs and STDs are entirely treatable and highly preventable. Still, if left untreated, they can cause long-term complications like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility, and an increased risk for cervical cancer.
Other infections that can affect your discharge
If your STD test is negative, but you still have discharge, there could be several other culprits. Other infections that aren’t sexually transmitted can also affect your vaginal discharge, including:
- Yeast infections can cause a clumpy, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese (and is generally odorless). It’s usually associated with intense itching.
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is associated with a watery, gray discharge with a fishy smell.
- Aerobic vaginitis (AV) causes sticky, green, or yellow discharge with a “rotten” or unpleasant odor.
- Cytolytic vaginosis (CV) often causes increased vaginal, white vaginal discharge that can be either watery or clumpy (similar to yeast infection discharge).
Although an STI might not cause it, any drastic shift in the way your vaginal discharge looks or smells deserves attention. If you’ve noticed a change in your discharge, Evvy’s comprehensive vaginal microbiome test can help you make sense of what the culprit is. And if you’re eligible for Evvy Care, an Evvy-affiliated provider can provide you with a care plan.
FAQs about STD Discharge
What does chlamydia discharge look like?
Chlamydia discharge is usually white or yellow and has a strong, unpleasant smell. That said, chlamydia has a nasty habit of being asymptomatic (meaning you might not have any symptoms), so looking at your discharge isn’t a good way to know if you have chlamydia. Other infections can also cause discharge similar to that of chlamydia. STI testing is the only way to know for sure whether or not you have an STI.
What color is an STI discharge?
It depends on the STI, but abnormal discharge due to an STI can range from white to yellow, green, or even gray.
What are 4 symptoms of STIs?
Most sexually transmitted infections are asymptomatic. When they do show symptoms, they can vary depending on the specific kind of infection you have. That said, the most common symptoms of an STI usually include abnormal vaginal discharge, painful urination, a stinging or burning sensation, and pain or bleeding during sex. Other infections that are not STIs can cause similar symptoms, too. You should speak to your healthcare provider or do an STI test if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.