What Is Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge, also known as leukorrhea, is a fluid that's usually clear or whitish and comes from your vagina. It's an important housekeeping function in the female reproductive system. Glands inside the vagina, uterus, and cervix produce a fluid throughout the day that carries away dead cells and bacteria, which is the stuff you might see in your underwear from time to time. This keeps your vagina clean and helps prevent infection.
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount can vary, as can odor and color, depending on the time in your menstrual cycle. It may also smell different when you're pregnant, or if you've been letting your personal hygiene slide.
None of those changes is cause for alarm. But if the color, smell, or consistency seems quite different than usual, especially if you also have vaginal itching or burning, you could be dealing with an infection or other condition.
Types of Discharge
Your vaginal discharge may look different throughout the month. It’s normal for it to vary in consistency, ranging from clear and slippery to white and thick, or even sticky and paste-like. It’s also normal for different people to have different amounts of vaginal discharge. Preteens and those in menopause, for example, tend to have less, while those who menstruate may have as much as one teaspoon each day. Other factors, such as whether you’re ovulating, breastfeeding, or sexually aroused, can affect the amount and texture, too.
Vaginal discharge during pregnancy
If you see more vaginal discharge when you’re pregnant, it’s actually a good thing. The discharge makes it harder for infections to travel from the vagina to the womb. Your body creates more of the hormone progesterone when you’re pregnant to help thicken the lining of your uterus. This can cause more discharge. Toward the end of your pregnancy, you might start to see some streaks of pink in your leukorrhea. That's just your cervix shedding mucus, and it’s one of the ways your body starts to prepare for birth.
Vaginal discharge before period
You may have less discharge toward the end of your menstrual cycle. But it’s also normal to see some brown spots right before your period. If you have a lighter flow, it takes longer for menstrual blood to travel down the cervix, so the color change is likely just older blood. In rare cases, brown discharge may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Vaginal Discharge Causes
Any change in your vagina's balance of normal bacteria can affect the smell, color, or texture of the discharge. Here are a few things that can upset that balance:
- Antibiotic or steroid use
- Bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection that's more common in pregnant women or women who have multiple sexual partners
- Birth control pills
- Cervical cancer
- Chlamydia, gonorrhea, or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or infections (STIs)
- Douches, scented soaps or lotions, bubble bath
- Pelvic infection after surgery
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Trichomoniasis, a parasitic infection you can get from having unprotected sex
- Vaginal atrophy, the thinning and drying out of the vaginal walls during menopause
- Vaginitis, an irritation in or around the vagina
- Yeast infections
Vaginal Discharge Color
Normal discharge is usually clear or milky white, while yellow, green, or gray discharge can mean there’s a problem. See the chart below to learn more about what different types of vaginal discharge might mean.
Types of abnormal discharge and their possible causes
|Type of discharge
|What it might mean
|Bloody or brown
|Irregular menstrual cycles, or less often, cervical or endometrial cancer
|Abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain
|Cloudy or yellow
|Bleeding between periods, urinary incontinence, pelvic pain
|Frothy, yellow, or greenish with a bad smell
|Pain and itching while urinating
|Shedding of the uterine lining after childbirth (lochia)
|Thick, white, cheesy
|Swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, painful sexual intercourse
|White, gray, or yellow with fishy odor
|Itching or burning, redness, and swelling of the vagina or vulva
Vaginal Discharge Diagnosis
Your doctor will start by taking a health history and asking about your symptoms. Questions may include:
- When did the abnormal discharge begin?
- What color is the discharge?
- Is there any smelly vaginal discharge?
- Do you have any itching, pain, or burning in or around the vagina?
- Do you have more than one sexual partner?
- Do you douche?
Your doctor may take a sample of the discharge or do a Pap test to collect cells from your cervix for further examination.
Vaginal Discharge Treatment
How you treat vaginal discharge will depend on what’s causing the problem. Some examples include:
- Yeast infection: Abnormal vaginal discharge caused by a yeast infection is usually treated with antifungal medications. These come as pills, as well as creams or gels that can be inserted directly into the vagina.
- Bacterial vaginosis: If the discharge is caused by bacterial vaginosis, it can be treated with antibiotic pills or creams.
- Trichomoniasis: For “trich” infections, your doctor will usually prescribe the drug metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax).
Use these tips to prevent vaginal infections and abnormal discharge:
- Keep your vagina clean by washing with a gentle, mild soap and warm water on the outside. There's no need to put soap directly in your vagina.
- Never douche or use scented soaps and feminine products in your vaginal area. Also, avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
- After going to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from getting into your vagina and causing an infection.
- Wear 100% cotton underwear, and avoid overly tight clothing.
If you have a vagina, you'll have some discharge. It’s normal for the amount, texture, and color to change throughout the month. On days when you have more discharge, you can use a panty liner to help manage it, but using them too often may cause irritation. Scented products designed to make your vagina smell better may do more harm than good, as they can disrupt the balance of normal bacteria. Always talk to your doctor if your discharge seems abnormal.
Vaginal Discharge FAQs
When should I go to the doctor for abnormal discharge?
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice major changes in the smell, color or texture of your vaginal discharge, including a fishy odor, a frothy or cottage cheese-like consistency, or if it turns a shade of green, yellow or gray. It’s also a good idea to speak with a doctor if you have any itching, burning, or pain with your discharge.
Is it normal to have a lot of discharge every day?
It’s normal to have some vaginal discharge each day. But if it feels like you have an unusually large amount, it could be a sign of an infection.
Who treats abnormal vaginal discharge?
You can treat vaginal discharge caused by a yeast infection with over-the-counter medications. But for other types of infections, such as bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics.