Let’s talk about the ‘D’ word: discharge. Vaginal discharge is fluid made by glands inside the vagina and cervix that get rid of dead cells and bacteria.
Not only does discharge keep your vagina clean, but it also helps prevent infection.
Here’s why I think this is an important discussion we need to have: I recently came across a conversation on Twitter where women were applauding themselves for not having any discharge at the end of a long day, which they seemed to believe highlighted the cleanliness and optimal health of their vaginas.
💡 People, discharge is healthy — even when it’s a color that indicates an infection. That’s your body’s way of communicating with you when you are experiencing any abnormalities!
It’s a necessary function for people with vaginas, and shaming each other into believing discharge is only a sign of poor hygiene keeps more of us ignorant of the healthy inner workings of our bodies.
Just like your vagina isn’t supposed to smell like a fresh batch of homemade cookies, it’s also not supposed to not cleanse itself and fight against bacteria in this way.
Reading these conversations is alarming (and dangerous) for many reasons, but largely because they shame too many women who experience different vaginal functions into thinking there’s something wrong with them.
Let me be the first one to tell you: There’s nothing wrong with you. I encourage you to ask questions. And if your discharge is a color that indicates a problem, the solution is often simple: seek medical guidance (virtually or in-person) or research the right over-the-counter product to suit your needs.
Here’s what you should know about vaginal health, vaginal discharge and its functions in your reproductive system. (And be sure to inform your friends!)
Breaking Down “Normal” Vaginal Discharge
There are several different types of vaginal discharge, and they’re categorized by their color and consistency. While we consider some types of discharge to be normal, others likely indicate an underlying condition (like an infection) that requires medical attention or over-the-counter treatment.
Let’s start with the varying types of discharge you shouldn’t be alarmed by.
👉 White: A bit of white discharge, especially at the beginning or end of menstruation, is normal. But if your discharge is accompanied by itching or burning or maybe has a thick, cottage cheese-like consistency or appearance, it’s not normal and requires treatment — this might be a sign of a yeast or other infection.
👉 Clear and watery: Also perfectly normal is a clear and watery discharge. This type of discharge can occur at any time of the month, but it might be especially heavy after you exercise.
👉 Clear and stretchy: When your discharge is clear but stretchy and mucous-like instead of just watery, this is a likely sign that you’re ovulating.
Normal vaginal discharge doesn’t have just one appearance — it can be somewhat thin, sticky and elastic, or thick and gooey.
While some people naturally experience a lot of discharge and may even wear pantiliners to keep their underwear dry, other people may not have much vaginal discharge at all — but it doesn’t mean one person’s vagina is better or healthier than the other.
Signs of a Problem with Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal fluids should be clear, white, or off-white in color. Yet, that’s not always the case, and sometimes, you may experience an abnormal type that signals you should look deeper into the potential issue.
These types of discharge often indicate a problem:
👩⚕️ Brown or bloody: Brown or bloody discharge is often a typical occurrence during or right after menstruating. When it comes at the end of your period, you can expect it to look brown rather than red. Additionally, people experience small amounts of bloody discharge between periods, which is called spotting. This is all normal.
Here’s where brown or bloody discharge requires a second opinion: If you spot instead of having a period during its normal time and you recently had unprotected sex, you may be pregnant. Spotting during an early phase of pregnancy could be a sign of miscarriage, so discuss this with your OB-GYN as soon as you can.
👩⚕️ Yellow or green: Yellow or green vaginal discharge that’s thick, chunky or accompanied by an unpleasant odor isn’t normal. This type of discharge could be a sign of trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that commonly spreads through sexual activities.
Overall, here are the changes to look out for with vaginal discharge:
- A change in odor, specifically an unpleasant one.
- A change in color, especially greenish, grayish or anything that looks like pus.
- A change in texture, such as a foamy or cottage cheese-like consistency.
- Vaginal itching, burning, swelling or redness.
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting unrelated to your period.
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge — What Causes It?
Like I mentioned before, normal vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function. After all, this is how your body cleans and protects your vagina.
Don’t be surprised if your vaginal discharge increases with sexual arousal and ovulation, when you exercise, take birth control pills or experience emotional stress.
If you experience the abnormal type discharge we talked about above, however, that’s likely due to an infection, and it’s important to get it checked out by your healthcare provider.
Here are all the kinds of infections that can negatively impact your discharge and often require screenings from your medical provider:
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Yeast infection
- Gonorrhea or Chlamydia
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Noticed a Change? Here’s What to Do
If you think you’re experiencing abnormal vaginal discharge along with other symptoms I’ve described, make an appointment to speak with your doctor right away. Keep in mind this is especially important if you’ve recently had sex, because it could be a sign of an STD.
Additional symptoms to look out for include:
❌ Increased urination
❌ Pain in the abdomen
Even though most causes of vaginal discharge can be treated, it’s important to tend to the potential problem as quickly as you can.
At your doctor’s appointment, your doctor will conduct a physical and pelvic exam. Plus, they’ll ask several questions about your symptoms, menstrual cycle and your sexual activity — be prepared to provide as much accurate information as possible.
It’s also possible that your doctor will order tests to better understand the underlying problem, such as collecting a Pap smear, if appropriate, to evaluate the health of your cervix. It also allows doctors to collect swabs to test for the infections mentioned above, or even examine your discharge under a microscope to look for possible infectious agents.
Once your doctor tells you the cause of the abnormal discharge, you’ll receive the right treatment options.
Before you get to the point of needing treatment, you can always try to prevent infections by practicing good hygiene, wearing breathable cotton underwear and changing out of wet clothing and underwear ASAP. Plus, always practice safe sex and use protection to avoid STIs.
Here’s where the Big Feminine Hygiene Product agenda comes in: Douches, vagina freshening sprays (you’re not supposed to smell like strawberries!), scented washes and more come with the promise of ridding your genitals of its natural odor and keeping you fresh all day long.
In actuality, these products often significantly make discharge worse by removing normal, useful bacteria from your vagina’s microbiome, and even shifting the normal pH balance.
When in doubt, go unscented for any vaginal washes — and be sure to remember your vulva needs to be cleaned, but your vagina is a self-cleaning organ.
Until next time, friends. ❤️
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.