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What does my vaginal discharge mean?

Your body is telling you something—here's what you need to know.

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When you’re going to the bathroom, it’s hard to miss what’s happening in your underwear. Since the early days of puberty, you may have noticed fluid ranging in color, amount, and consistency. That’s your vaginal discharge. (Fun fact: My sister told me it was… pee crust.)

Sure, most people with vaginas likely know the basics of discharge. What many people may not realize is that the fluid holds insights into many aspects of your reproductive, sexual, and overall health.

What changes in vaginal discharge can you expect? And what could be a sign of something that warrants a call to your health care provider? Here’s your guide to “normal” and “abnormal” vaginal discharge.

What is vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is mucus produced by the uterus, cervix, and vagina. The mucus mostly contains water, exfoliated cells, and bacteria. Vaginal discharge produced by the cervix is often referred to as cervical mucus or cervical fluid.

The vagina is a “self-cleaning oven”, and vaginal discharge is one way the vagina keeps itself clean. It removes dead cells from the uterine lining and protects against infection. Experts recommend against douching or using vaginal-cleaning products because they can disrupt the typical and healthy balance of bacteria.

People with vaginas start producing discharge in puberty. Vaginal discharge can be affected by the hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle and during pregnancy. It can also be impacted by bacterial imbalances (think infections).

Changes in vaginal discharge can clue you in to what’s going on with your health. Vaginal discharge can also change in response to conditions unrelated to reproductive and sexual health, like diabetes or use of corticosteroids.

Types of vaginal discharge

How do you know if your vaginal discharge is “normal” or indicative of a possible health issue? Here are the expected changes in discharge throughout life and what could be worth checking out with a healthcare provider.

What does normal discharge look like?

“Normal” vaginal discharge can be assessed by checking out a few factors:

  • Color: Clear, white, or off-white
  • Texture: Watery to paste-like
  • Smell: No noticeable odor
  • Amount: There’s no “normal” amount of vaginal discharge. It can vary based on a few circumstances, like menstrual cycle phase, pregnancy, or while using birth control.

It’s important to note that what “normal” looks like for one person might be different for another—your “normal” discharge could be clear and watery, whereas someone else’s is off-white and paste-like. It can also be impacted by where you are in your menstrual cycle (more on that in a moment).

But if your discharge seems off from what’s normal for you, that could be an indicator of a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (BV). Consult with a Hey Jane provider today who can help quickly diagnose your symptoms virtually.

Vaginal discharge before your period

The menstrual cycle is driven by an intricate hormonal sequence that kicks off and ends with your period. Hormone levels dramatically change before and after your period. These changes also affect how cervical mucus (one type of vaginal discharge) looks and feels.

Just before ovulation, the time in a cycle when an ovary releases an egg, cervical mucus is typically:

  • Stretchy, slippery, and milky white discharge
  • Similar to raw egg whites

Many people who are trying to get pregnant (or avoid pregnancy) plan penis-in-vagina sex or insemination around these cervical mucus changes.

Before your period, there is typically no noticeable cervical mucus.

Vaginal discharge during pregnancy

The hormonal changes that support a growing pregnancy can also lead to an increase in vaginal discharge. This makes it harder for infections to pass through the vagina and impact the pregnancy.

Pregnancy hormone levels can also disrupt the vagina’s bacterial environment and lead to an overgrowth of yeast. This is why, in pregnancy, yeast infections are very common. 

Discharge-related signs of yeast infections include:

  • White and clumpy vaginal discharge
  • Extra-watery discharge

Very late in pregnancy, discharge may increase more and contain streaks of pink, jelly-like mucus. While this can be a sign that labor may be starting soon, it’s best to contact your health care provider to rule out any other concerns.

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Treat BV online with Hey Jane—it’s fast, discreet, and less than in-clinic care

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Causes of changes in vaginal discharge

There are many health conditions and medications used to treat health conditions that can contribute to noticeable changes in vaginal discharge.

Common infections

Although not all vaginal or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) cause noticeable symptoms, changes in vaginal discharge could be a sign of having one.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common of all of the possible vaginal infections. It’s caused by an overgrowth of “harmful” bacteria in the vagina. 

Most people don’t have symptoms, but the following changes in vaginal discharge could be signs of BV:

  • White or gray vaginal discharge
  • Fishy-smelling discharge

Yeast infection

Yeast infections are very common vaginal infections caused by a bacteria called candida. The following changes in vaginal discharge could be signs of yeast infection:

  • White and clumpy vaginal discharge
  • Extra-watery discharge

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is one of the most common STIs. The following changes in vaginal discharge (along with vaginal/pelvic pain or burning with urination) could be signs of chlamydia:

  • White, gray, or yellow vaginal discharge
  • Foul-smelling discharge

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is another very common STI. Most people don’t have symptoms, but the following changes in vaginal discharge (along with vaginal/pelvic pain or burning with urination) could be signs of gonorrhea:

  • Increased white, yellow, or green vaginal discharge
  • Thick and cloudy discharge

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis (“trich” for short) is a common STI. Most people don’t have symptoms, but the following changes in vaginal discharge (along with vaginal/pelvic pain or burning with urination) could be signs of trich:

  • Clear, white, yellow, or green vaginal discharge
  • Thin or increased discharge—which can be very copious (some patients report needing to use a tampon to absorb the excess)
  • Frothy discharge
  • Fishy-smelling discharge

Cervical cancer

Most people with early cervical cancer don’t experience symptoms. However, the following changes in vaginal discharge could be signs of cervical cancer:

  • Pale, watery, pink, or brown vaginal discharge
  • Discharge that doesn’t stop flowing
  • Blood in the discharge
  • Foul-smelling discharge

Most kinds of cervical cancer are preventable with human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. Regular screenings can help detect the cancer very early on.

Diabetes

People with under- or untreated diabetes may have more frequent yeast infections. Imbalance in blood sugar levels can lead to an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina.

Medications

The use of certain medications can result in changes in vaginal discharge or make yeast infections more frequent.

Antibiotics

Taking antibiotics to treat nonvaginal infections can lead to an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina and cause yeast infections, as it can kill off healthy and balancing bacteria. 

Hormonal birth control

One of the ways that hormonal birth control works to prevent pregnancy is by changing cervical mucus. 

Birth control that contains estrogen and/or progestin can lead to the following changes in vaginal discharge:

  • Thicker vaginal discharge
  • Sticky discharge

People on high-dose estrogen birth control are more likely to get yeast infections. High levels of estrogen can cause an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina.

(If you’re currently on a high-dose estrogen birth control and are looking for other options, our team of expert providers can help you find the best birth control option for you—start your consultation today.)

Steroids

Regular use of corticosteroids like prednisolone can lead to more frequent yeast infections. The medications can also make the body more resistant to certain infection treatments (ones ending in -azole) commonly prescribed for yeast infections.

Guide to vaginal discharge colors and changes

Chart showing different colors of vaginal discharge and their meanings, including clear, white, yellow, green, and brown

Treatment options for conditions that lead to changes in vaginal discharge

If changes in vaginal discharge are the result of a common health condition, treatment will address those symptoms and get you back to your normal:

  • BV treatment: BV is treated with the antibiotics metronidazole (Flagyl) or clindamycin (Cleocin).
  • Yeast infection treatment: Yeast infections are treated with the antibiotics fluconazole (Diflucan), miconazole (Monistat), or terconazole (Terazol).
  • Chlamydia treatment: Chlamydia is treated with the antibiotics doxycycline (Vibramycin) or azithromycin (Zithromax).
  • Trich treatment: Trich is treated with the antibiotics metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).

If you think you may have a yeast infection or BV, consult with a Hey Jane provider from your phone to get started on treatment ASAP.

When to see your health care provider

Everyone with a vagina has discharge. But it’s important to reach out to a health care provider if your discharge is:

  • Gray, yellow, or green
  • Tinged with blood (if spotting isn’t common for you or you’re postmenopausal)
  • Cloudy or frothy
  • Odorous (smells foul or like fish)
  • Different than what you are used to!

It’s also a good idea to talk to your provider if you notice major changes in your discharge or have vaginal itching, burning, or pain. They can help you figure out what’s going on, so you can start feeling better again.

Hey Jane’s team of providers have you covered for treatment of many of the conditions that cause vaginal discharge changes. With Hey Jane, you can get safe, discreet, and virtual treatment for BV and yeast infections

You can also get a prescription for one of 100+ birth control options (including pills, the ring, and the shot) based on your health history and preferences.

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Written by

Sarah duRivage-Jacobs (MPH)

Sarah duRivage-Jacobs is a New York-based writer and editor of words dealing with reproductive health and abortion access. She received her Masters of Public Health degree in Community Health.

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