Vaginal Discharge: Understanding the 5 Common Colors & Causes
Irregular vaginal discharge can be alarming but usually there is usually nothing to worry about. However, because certain vaginal discharge colors can signify pregnancy, an infection, or other health conditions, it’s important to understand what the different colors of vaginal discharge really mean
Vaginal discharge colors: what they mean
Throughout most of the month, vaginal discharge is clear, white, or off-white. Different shades of clear, white, or off-white vaginal discharge can help you tell when you are the most and least fertile. Other times, vaginal discharge can have an unusual color, such as yellow, green, red, or brown. Sometimes, this can signify health issues, such as pregnancy or an infection.
Red or brown discharge gets its color from menstrual blood. Blood turns brown when it is oxidized, or exposed to the air. Thus, brown discharge is simply oxidized blood mixed with your normal cervical mucus.
Most of the time, red or brown discharge is associated with your menstrual period. If you get light red or brown discharge a few days before your period is supposed to start, it may mean your period has arrived early. Periods can come early due to stress, hormonal changes, and more.
If you are trying to conceive or recently had unprotected sex, brown discharge a few days before your period could be something known as implantation bleeding. Implantation bleeding is light bleeding that occurs when a fertilized egg implants in the womb. It may be a sign you are pregnant, so make sure to take a pregnancy test on the first day of your next expected period.
Sometimes, women may see red or brown discharge in the middle of their cycle. This is known as irregular bleeding or spotting. Light spotting is usually nothing to worry about, especially if you are on hormonal birth control. Spotting is a common side effect of birth control methods like the combined oral contraceptive pill.
If spotting is heavy or continues for a long time, you should talk to your doctor to rule out any serious conditions. Rarely, red or brown discharge may be due to a more serious condition, such as a vaginal blockage or cervical cancer.
As you may have guessed, “egg white” discharge gets its name because it resembles raw egg whites. Egg white discharge is clear, slippery, and stretchy. It has no odor and no color, and you may notice a greater volume of discharge than usual.
It is normal to see egg white discharge during your menstrual cycle, particularly around the time of ovulation. Your discharge becomes more and more like the white of an egg as estrogen rises prior to ovulation. When you have egg white discharge, it is usually a sign that you are in your fertile window.
If you want to conceive, you should try to have sex when you notice egg white discharge as this is a sign that you may be ovulating. If not, you should make sure to use protection or avoid having sex as egg white discharge signifies fertility.
Women may also notice a higher volume of egg white discharge when they are sexually aroused or “wet.” Sexual stimulation causes glands in the vagina to produce natural lubrication, resulting in egg white discharge. This discharge protects the vagina from friction, tearing, and pain during sex.
Milky white discharge, known as leukorrhea, is the normal discharge secreted from the vagina over the course of the menstrual cycle. This discharge may change in color or texture throughout the menstrual cycle but usually remains clear, milky white, or off-white.
Increased leukorrhea is a common sign of early pregnancy. If you are trying to conceive or recently had unprotected sex and notice a greater amount of thick, milky white discharge than usual, you should take a pregnancy test on the first day of your next expected menstrual period.
Sometimes, milky white discharge can be a sign of an infection. Usually, it will also change in texture when a vaginal infection is present. Yeast infections can be identified by clumpy, cottage cheese-like vaginal discharge, while thin milky white or gray discharge may be a sign of bacterial vaginosis.
Off-white discharge with a slight yellow tinge may be normal vaginal discharge. However, bright yellow or green vaginal discharge is not normal and may be a sign of a vaginal infection known as trichomoniasis.
Trichomoniasis, or “trich,” is a sexually transmitted infection, meaning it is spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner. Men with trichomoniasis usually do not have symptoms and do not find out that they have it until they spread it to their female partner.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a protozoan parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. The infection causes a foul-smelling, frothy green or yellow vaginal discharge. The treatment for trichomoniasis is antibiotics.
Clear vaginal discharge is normal to notice during certain parts of your cycle. You may especially notice clear vaginal discharge when you approach your fertile window or during sexual arousal. Slippery, clear discharge with the consistency of egg whites, as we noted before, is typically a sign that you are fertile.
Sometimes, you may notice increased amounts of clear, watery vaginal discharge after exercise, especially if you do a lot of cardio. This is normal and does not require treatment. However, it’s important to note that feeling increased wetness while exercising can sometimes be a sign of urinary incontinence, which is commonly confused with vaginal discharge.
Vaginal discharge vs. cervical mucus
You might be wondering if vaginal discharge is different from cervical mucus as the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, while vaginal discharge does contain cervical mucus, they are not one and the same.
Cervical mucus (sometimes called cervical fluid) is produced by the cervix, the part of the uterus that extends into the vagina. The cervix produces more discharge when you are fertile and less during other parts of your cycle. After your period, it may produce little to no discharge at all. However, it’s important to note that while vaginal discharge includes cervical mucus, that is not all that vaginal discharge contains.
The term “vaginal discharge” refers to any non-period fluid that leaves the vagina. This includes vaginal fluid, cervical mucus, arousal fluid (the discharge produced when you are sexually aroused), day-old sperm from unprotected sexual activity, and dead cells from the cervix and vagina. Cervical mucus makes up the largest component of vaginal discharge, but they are not interchangeable terms.
Things to look for regarding discharge
Certain changes in your vaginal discharge can be a sign of pregnancy, infection, or another health problem. Keep an eye out for these unusual changes, which may warrant a visit to your OB/GYN.
1. Thick, cottage-cheese discharge
If you notice a thick white discharge that looks like cottage cheese, you may be suffering from a yeast infection (read how yeast infections can indirectly impact your fertility). Yeast, or candida, normally grows in the vagina but may sometimes overgrow, leading to an infection.
This is more likely with prolonged exposure to moist environments — for example, if you wear a wet bathing suit too long or do not change your panties after exercise. These infections can also cause painful sex, painful urination, and intense itching of the vulva and/or vagina.
Over-the-counter treatments are available for yeast infections. However, if you have never had a yeast infection before, it’s recommended that you visit your doctor before treating it to make sure that is really what you have.
2. Thin, watery, gray discharge
Thin, watery, gray discharge with a foul, “fishy” odor can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. Unlike yeast infections, this infection does not normally cause pain or itching. Bacterial vaginosis, or BV for short, is caused by an imbalance of the bacteria normally found in the vagina.
This bacteria is called Gardnerella vaginalis. It’s unknown what causes bacterial vaginosis, but it’s thought that sexual activity may contribute. While men do not get BV, they can carry Gardnerella, spreading it to their sexual partners. However, because this is not the only way to get BV, it is not considered a sexually-transmitted infection. BV is treated with antibiotics, which require a prescription from your doctor.
3. Frothy yellow or green discharge
Trichomoniasis — a.k.a. “trich” — can cause foul-smelling, frothy yellow or green discharge. The parasite that causes trichomoniasis, Trichomonas vaginalis, is spread via sexual intercourse. Men can be infected with Trichomonas, but usually do not have symptoms. However, in addition to unusual discharge, women may also experience pain or burning with sex and/or urination. Like BV, trich is treated with antibiotics that require a doctor’s prescription.
4. Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Abnormal vaginal bleeding, or spotting, is any brown or red discharge occurring outside your regular menstrual period. If you are on hormonal birth control, abnormal vaginal bleeding may be a normal side effect. You may also experience abnormal vaginal bleeding as a result of stress or hormonal changes. Rarely, however, abnormal vaginal bleeding can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as cervical cancer. If you experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, talk to your doctor to rule out a major medical concern.
5. Thick, dark brown discharge
Thick, dark brown (or even black) discharge typically results from a blockage in the vagina. This can happen if you “lose” a condom or tampon inside yourself. It’s important to note that objects cannot really be “lost” in the vagina since the cervical opening is not wide enough for them to pass through.
However, “lost” condoms or tampons may sometimes become stuck in the cervix, leading to thick, dark brown discharge. If you are experiencing thick, dark brown discharge, visit your OB/GYN to ensure there is nothing blocking your cervical opening.
How to maintain vaginal health
Maintaining good vaginal health, including hygiene, can prevent vaginal infections and unusual discharge. Here are some tips to follow for a healthy, happy vagina.
1. Use only unscented soap.
Perfumed soaps and sprays can upset the pH balance of the vagina, as can douching. To clean your vagina, you should only use warm water and a gentle, unscented soap on the outside, or vulva. You should never put soaps, sprays, or douching products inside the vagina itself since this can lead to infections.
2. Wear 100% cotton underwear.
Cotton is breathable and absorbent. Since moisture promotes the growth of yeast, wearing underwear made from synthetic materials like polyester, which does not wick moisture as well as cotton, can cause yeast infections. You should always wear 100% cotton underwear, especially if your vulva is sensitive.
3. Keep your vaginal area dry.
Again, moist environments promote the growth of yeast. For this reason, you should always change out of damp underwear or swimsuits as soon as possible. Sitting around in a wet swimsuit or wearing sweaty underwear after working out, for example, might cause a yeast infection.
4. Consider taking probiotics.
Certain probiotics, such as lactobacillus, are found in the vagina’s natural microbiome. Taking a supplement with these probiotics in it can help replenish the healthy bacteria that maintain the normal pH of the vagina. You can also get probiotics from foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
5. Visit your doctor as needed.
Make sure to keep up with regular OB/GYN appointments. Women who are sexually active should get a gynecological exam at least once per year. After the age of 21, women also need to get a Pap smear at least once every three years, if the test comes back normal. If it comes back abnormal, you may need a Pap smear more often than that.
You should also visit your doctor anytime you notice unusual discharge or other symptoms of vaginal infections. Untreated infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and/or infertility. If you are given medications for infections, make sure to take them as directed, even once you are feeling better, to completely treat the infection.