What Do the Different Types of Vaginal Discharge Mean?

December 18, 2019 | Yesmom

Yes Mom

Your vaginal discharge can definitely tell a lot about your overall vaginal health. How? Well you must know that most often vaginal discharge is a normal and regular occurrence. In general practice, the management of vaginal discharge is a common and important problem which may be encountered in women of all ages. The consistency and amount of vaginal discharge changes at different points in a woman’s menstrual cycle. 

The vagina has a finely tuned but dynamic ecosystem which includes moisture, pH, and bacteria. Like everything else in life, this too is susceptible to changes. Vaginal discharge is bound to raise common questions for feminine hygiene and care, like what’s normal and what is not. Good news is that you do not have to figure it out all by yourself. We are here to help you. 

What is a vaginal discharge?

Simply put, the glands in your cervix and vagina release certain fluids which are responsible for carrying bacteria and dead cells out of the body, keep your vagina clean and prevent infection (or multitasking!) Many women witness what they commonly perceive as an abnormal vaginal discharge at some point in their lives but more often than not it is a white or clear, normal non-offensive discharge that heavily varies with the menstrual cycle. However, vaginal discharge can be caused by several non-sexually and sexually transmitted infections and it’s best to be aware of them, right? While some types of discharge are normal, others may indicate an underlying condition that needs your immediate attention and treatment. 

What are the different types of vaginal discharge?

Thick white discharge

If your discharge is way thicker, it is probably caused by a yeast infection and will go along with a host of other symptoms like burning, irritation and itching, swelling and pain around the vulva and painful sexual intercourse. You may notice an increase in thickness before and after your period. But it’s not harmful so you can relax. However, check with your doctor to be sure. 

Clear white

A clear, watery discharge is normal and can occur at any time of the month. You may have noticed it. It is however common before your periods or as a natural lubricant to make sex less painful and easier. It’s a convenient way for the vagina to perform its self-cleansing functions. 

Yellow

We do not mean to freak you out, but this is not normal at all and can be a sign of a sexually transmitted or bacterial infection although sometimes the color can stem from the food you’ve eaten over the week. Your vagina is what you eat after all! You may even notice an unpleasant odor. A cloudy yellow indicates an STD called gonorrhea which is accompanied by symptoms like urinary inconsistency, bleeding between periods and pelvic pain. If it’s frothy or green it could imply another common STD called trichomoniasis. Itching during urination is a symptom. A fishy odor could also translate to bacterial vaginosis. Common symptoms are redness, burning sensations and swelling of the vulva. 

Brown 

While brown or red discharge can be caused by erratic period cycles, it could also be a sign of cervical or uterine cancer. It is not very common but if you happen to notice don’t think twice about scheduling an appointment with your doctor, get an early pelvic exam and pap smear. Your gynecologist will look out for cervical abnormalities although it is rare. 

A late, brown discharge at the end of your period is common and you may even experience a small amount of bloody discharge between periods termed “spotting”. This may also be a sign of pregnancy. 

What is “normal” vaginal discharge in terms of color, consistency, and volume?

With your body’s production of cervical fluids, it’s only natural for your discharge to change. It will be sticky/dry at the beginning of your cycle. You may not even notice your discharge. During the first phase of the cycle (middle to late follicular phase) it will become creamy and around ovulation, it is likely to be wet, stretchy, and transparent egg white. 

Your discharge will increase throughout the first phase and the most are produced around the time of ovulation. It’s also common to notice more fluid when you’re aroused.

Vaginal discharge can sometimes have a mild, not unpleasant smell but it can also be odorless. Your period and urine will influence the way it smells on your underwear. You, however, need to be aware of your typical smell to identify when it’s different. These, however, are very typical vaginal discharge patterns that are likely to change or stop altogether if you use hormonal birth control. 

Causes of vaginal discharge

Normal vaginal discharge is a healthy bodily function. Abnormal vaginal discharge is usually caused by an infection. It happens when your vagina’s microbial community is thrown off balance. Imbalances like these can easily lead to conditions like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, the latter being the most common cause of the abnormal discharge. Some factors that significantly contribute to a disrupted vaginal ecosystem are-

  • Increased sexual activity or a new sexual partner
  • Douching and cleansing practices
  • IUDs or hormonal birth controls
  • Use of steroids or antibiotics
  • Menopause or pregnancy
  • Spotting, irregular bleeding
  • Diabetes
  • Having less vaginal Lactobacillus bacteria
  • Unhealthy food habits, alcohol, and smoking
  • STIs can also be a cause of abnormal discharge the most common one being Trichomonas vaginalis. Sometimes STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia can be asymptomatic which makes regular STI testing increasingly important. You are more prone to getting an STI during the second part of your cycle following ovulation also known as the luteal phase when your immune system is not as strong. 

Please remember that discharge is an umbrella term that describes any kind of fluid that comes out of your vagina. Cervical fluid is an aspect of this discharge and it is susceptible to various changes during the cycle to either facilitate or prevent sperm from moving past the cervix. As a part of the human sexual response cycle, arousal fluid is created within your vagina.

You must keep your vagina healthy and be extremely diligent about using protection with untested new sexual partners. Good hygiene will make you less likely to contract an STI and will also help prevent uncomfortable symptoms and potential complications. If you notice any kind of discharge that’s nor normal or usual for you see your gynecologist immediately and be prepared to discuss the smell, color, and consistency (even if it’s awkward). However, in most cases, the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge can be treated successfully. Your vaginal discharge is more than an afterthought and now is a good time to pay attention.



[1]Mary Ellen Ellis. Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Discharge. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/vaginal-discharge 

[2]Spence, D., & Melville, C. (2007, December 1). Vaginal discharge. BMJ, 335(7630), 1147–1151. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2099568/ 

[3]Bacterial vaginosis – CDC fact sheet. 2017, February 16. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/std/bv/stdfact-bacterial-vaginosis.htm