Decoding Your Discharge

Decoding Your Discharge

You want a healthy, happy vagina—this goes without saying. Something else that's a given? Vaginas can be a bit mysterious, and sometimes, we may feel more like detectives trying to decipher clues. Discharge, which plays a pivotal role in vaginal health, is a common sticking point. A quick Google search will tell you that many women feel embarrassed to speak with their OB/GYN about discharge. But it's nothing to be shy about. After all, vaginal discharge plays a critical role in vaginal health.

“Vaginal discharge is a fluid produced by glands inside the vagina and cervix,” says Dr. Matthew Casavant, board-certified OB-GYN and founder of Florida-based South Lake OB/GYN & Advanced Surgery. “It helps to clean and moisten the vagina, removing dead cells and bacteria.”

But not all discharge is created equal; while some vaginal discharge is completely normal (and essential!), certain types of discharge can be a red flag (or green or brown or yellow flag, you could say) letting you know that something’s up—and as a person with a vagina, you need to be able to decode your discharge and figure out what it might be trying to tell you about your health.

So how, exactly, do you do that?

Let’s take a look at the different types of discharge your vagina might produce, what each type means, and how to know if and when to see a doctor about your discharge:

How does normal discharge look, feel, and smell?

Your discharge can come in a variety of colors and consistencies—but in order to effectively decode your discharge, you first need to understand what healthy discharge is supposed to look and feel like. 

“Normal discharge is typically clear or milky white, with a mild odor,” says Casavant. “Its consistency can range from thin and watery to thick and sticky, varying throughout the menstrual cycle.” 

  • Days 6–14: Following a period, a person may notice less vaginal discharge than usual. As the egg starts to develop and mature, the cervical mucus will become cloudy and white or yellow. It may feel sticky.
  • Days 14–25: A few days before ovulation, the mucus will be thin and slippery, similar to the consistency of egg whites. After ovulation, the mucus will return to cloudy, white or yellow, and possibly sticky or tacky.
  • Days 25–28: The cervical mucus will lighten, and a person will see less of it, before getting another period.

That’s also true for pregnant women—and, in fact, women may have more discharge throughout their pregnancy as it helps prevent infections from getting to the womb via the vagina.

During pregnancy, normal discharge, known as leukorrhea, is usually thin, white, and milky with a mild odor,” says Casavant. “It may increase in volume as pregnancy progresses.”

Other types of discharge—and why you may experience them

Now that you understand what normal discharge looks like, let’s jump into why you might have other types of discharge.

Why do I have yellow or green discharge?

If the discharge has a very slight yellow hue, it may not indicate a problem. This is especially likely if you are in the midst of a change in diet or are taking a new dietary supplement. If your vaginal discharge has a darker yellow or green tone to it, it could be a sign of an infection.

For example, one study of abnormal vaginal discharge found that all the participants with chlamydia had yellow-ish discharge. 40 percent of women with gonorrhea and 60 percent with trichomoniasis had green-ish discharge.

You should definitely go see your doctor if vaginal discharge is thick, clumpy or it has a foul odor.

Why do I have grayish discharge?

Gray vaginal discharge might mean you have a common bacterial infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV).

BV usually causes other vaginal symptoms as well, including:

  • itching
  • irritation
  • a strong odor
  • redness around the vulva or vaginal opening

Anyone with gray discharge should promptly see a doctor. 

Why do I have brown discharge?

If your discharge is brown, chances are, it’s nothing to be too alarmed about. Brown discharge typically “often indicates old blood, which could be from the end of a period, implantation bleeding, or cervical irritation,” says Casavant.

Why is the consistency of my discharge off?

As mentioned, the ideal consistency for discharge can range from thin and watery to thick and sticky; it all depends on where you are in your cycle. But if you have some other texture or consistency—like chunky or frothy—it can be a sign that something’s wrong.

“Discharge that is thick, chunky, or resembles cottage cheese can indicate a yeast infection,” says Casavant. “Similarly, frothy or foamy discharge can be a sign of trichomoniasis.”

Why does my discharge have a fishy odor?

In the study mentioned above, researchers found that nearly 80 percent of women with fishy vaginal discharge odor tested positive for bacterial vaginosis (BV).

When it’s time to get help

Color and consistency are the variables you want to keep an eye out for when decoding your discharge health. 

“Green and yellow discharges can be problematic as they often indicate infections that require medical treatment,” says Casavant.

By the same token, if your discharge is lumpy, frothy, chunky, or any other consistency that doesn’t fall on the “thin and watery to thick and sticky” range, you’ll want to get it checked out.  

In addition to discharge issues, you should also look for other symptoms that could point to an issue with your vaginal health.

“Warning signs include a strong, foul odor, itching, burning, swelling, redness, or pain,” says Casavant.

What about brown discharge? As mentioned, if you have brown discharge, it’s likely because it’s mixed with old blood—which is generally nothing to be worried about. However, if your brown discharge shows up alongside other symptoms (like itching or a strong odor), it’s best to talk to your gynecologist. 

A sudden, and sustained, discharge change is also often a reason to take note and get yourself checked. "Any persistent changes or accompanying symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare professional to rule out infections or other health issues,” says Casavant.

The best way to decode your discharge? Track it

While there are benchmarks for what normal discharge looks and feels like, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Normal can look different from person to person—so if you want to be able to decode your discharge, it’s important to keep track.

“Regular monitoring of your discharge can help you understand what is normal for your body,” says Casavant. 

Jot down notes each day on your discharge—including color, consistency, volume, and odor. Over time, you’ll get a clear sense of what’s normal for you. And if anything changes and feels out of the norm? That’s a good indicator that something might be up—and it’s time to reach out to your doc. 

Here’s a round-up of some basic OB/GYN-approved tips for maintaining optimal vaginal health.

  • Let your vagina do its thing. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Using harsh chemicals, prepackaged wipes or douching can disrupt its normal process. If you must, a gentle soap is okay for your external genitalia.
  • Go to the bathroom after sex. Going to the bathroom to pee can help flush out any bacteria that may have entered your urethra during sex.
  • Change your underwear daily. This helps to keep your vulva dry and free of bacteria.
  • Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing. This helps to keep your vulva cool and dry.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids helps to keep your urine dilute and flush out bacteria.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to keep your immune system strong and fight off infection.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercise helps to improve circulation and reduce stress, both of which can contribute to vaginal health problems.

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Decode your way to better health

A major part of health is having a clear picture of what’s going on in your body and why—and vaginal health is no different. Understanding the ins and outs of discharge—and not just discharge in general, but your actual discharge—can give you the insights you need to ensure your vagina stays healthy and happy.

Next up: From mood swings to bloating, here's how to deal with your most disruptive PMS symptoms. Want to keep improving your body literacy? Learn more about the menstrual health gap.