Vaginal Discharge: Understanding the 6 Common Colors & Causes
Everyone has vaginal discharge – there, we said it!
It might feel embarrassing to talk about it, but vaginal discharge is a completely normal part of the female reproductive system. It helps the body flush away dead cells and bacteria, it fights off infection, and it protects the body during sex. It even changes in color and texture throughout the menstrual cycle to help facilitate the conception process.
However, it’s important to note that not all discharge is considered “good” discharge, and certain changes may indicate an underlying health concern – such as an infection. That’s why it’s so, so important to have a general idea of what’s “normal” and “not normal” – so that you can better understand your cycle and make the best decisions for your reproductive health.
Ready to learn all about your vaginal discharge and what it may be telling you? Let’s go!
6 Types of Vaginal Discharge Explained
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 discharge typically contains menstrual blood. It can range in color from bright red to reddish-brown. In terms of texture, it can vary from clumpy and jelly-like to smooth and consistent.
It’s normal to have red or brown discharge at the beginning of your period and during your period. You may also see it in the middle of your cycle (this is called “spotting”). Light spotting is usually nothing to worry about. However, heavy and/or prolonged spotting is not considered normal and may indicate an underlying medical concern.
White or clear discharge that feels slippery, wet, and stretchy often occurs around ovulation and during sexual arousal. It typically resembles raw egg whites, and an increased volume of egg white discharge is one of the key signs that you are in your fertile window.
If discharge has a more milky white or off-white appearance, this is called ‘leukorrhea’. Leukorrhea is completely normal and is secreted from the vagina throughout the menstrual cycle.
In some cases, milky white discharge may be a sign of dysbiosis (i.e. an imbalance in bacteria). For example, 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.
Bright yellow vaginal discharge is not normal and may be a sign of an infection. For example, Trichomoniasis or “Trich” is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the protozoan parasite, Trichomonas vaginalis. This particular infection is known to cause frothy green or yellow vaginal discharge.
Discharge that is pink in color often contains small amounts of blood related to the menstrual cycle. This is called “spotting”, and it typically occurs at the beginning of your period, after your period, and during ovulation (this is known as ovulation bleeding). Compared to menstrual bleeding, spotting is thinner and drier in texture, and it is much lower in volume.
In some cases, pink discharge can also indicate an underlying condition – especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as cramping, frequent urination, and/or painful intercourse.
Gray discharge is not considered normal and is most commonly associated with bacterial vaginosis (BV). In cases of BV, discharge will be gray or off-white in color and have a thin “milk-like” consistency. It may also have an odor.
Discharge can appear black in color in cases where menstrual blood has taken extra time to exit the uterus. It’s considered normal to experience black discharge before and/or after your period.
In cases where black discharge is not associated with a period, it may indicate an underlying issue such as miscarriage, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), cervical cancer, or the presence of a foreign object inside the vagina (such as a tampon).
Normal vs Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
Signs of healthy discharge
It is normal for the color, texture, volume, and consistency of physiological discharge to change throughout the menstrual cycle.
For example, during your period, it’s normal for vaginal discharge to range in color from red, to pink, brown, and black. During the fertile window and ovulation, vaginal discharge will likely be clear, slippery, and stretchy. During the rest of your cycle, it’s normal for discharge to be white or off-white in color and lighter in volume compared to ovulation. It’s also normal to experience light “spotting”. When it comes to smell, healthy vaginal discharge will have a light, mild odor.
Signs of abnormal discharge
While it’s normal for vaginal discharge to change throughout the menstrual cycle, there are certain characteristics that may be cause for concern.
This includes vaginal discharge that is:
- Yellow, green, or gray in color
- Foamy, frothy, or clumpy in texture
- Accompanied by a strong odor, itching, burning, and/or irritation around the vagina
- Accompanied by pain and cramping in the pelvic area and/or lower back
These symptoms are considered abnormal, and they may be an indicator of certain health concerns such as infection, vaginitis, cervicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), uterine fibroids, and in rare cases cervical cancer.
Factors that can influence vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge is primarily influenced by the fluctuating hormones that drive the menstrual cycle. This means that by paying attention to the color, volume, and texture of your discharge, it is possible to estimate which cycle phase you are in. This information can then be used to plan (or avoid) pregnancy by having (or abstaining) from sex during your fertile window.
For a more accurate estimate of your fertile window, tools like the Mira App and Monitor can be used to track fertility hormones directly. This eliminates some of the guesswork that comes with monitoring the physical characteristics of your discharge; enabling you to see your unique hormone fluctuations in real-time.
In addition to your menstrual cycle, other factors such as diet, sexual activity, hygiene practices, and even the fit/material of your underwear can also have an impact on vaginal discharge.
Common Causes of Abnormal Discharge
Thrush (yeast infection)
Vaginal yeast infections (sometimes called “thrush”) are a type of dysbiosis involving the rapid growth of Candida yeast in and around the vagina. This can cause the appearance of thick, white discharge. Common treatments include antifungal medication.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
Bacterial vaginosis (often referred to as “BV”) is a type of dysbiosis that occurs when the vagina has more harmful bacteria compared to good bacteria. This excess bacteria can cause discharge to appear gray in color. Treatment for bacterial vaginosis typically involves a round of antibiotics and in some cases probiotics.
Trichomoniasis (sometimes referred to as “Trich”) is a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI). It occurs when a parasite called “Trichomonas vaginalis” is passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse. The most common symptom of Trichomoniasis is a foul-smelling frothy green or yellow discharge. Treatment for Trichomoniasis typically involves a round of antibiotics.
Chlamydia is a type of STI caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It can cause discharge to appear green or yellow in color. It may also cause bleeding or spotting between periods. It can also be asymptomatic. Treatment for Chlamydia involves a round of antibiotics.
Gonorrhea is a type of STI caused by a bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Similar to Chlamydia, Gonorrhea can cause discharge to appear green or yellow in color. It may also cause bleeding or spotting between periods. Treatment for Gonorrhea involves a round of antibiotics.
Genital herpes is a type of STI. It can be caused by either the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Discharge from genital herpes may appear thick, white, clear, or cloudy. It may also be accompanied by a strong odor. Genital herpes cannot be cured, but it can be treated with antiviral medication to help prevent or shorten outbreaks.
Treating Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
Discharge caused by vaginal yeast (such as vaginal candidiasis) can be treated with antifungal medication. Some antifungal medications are available over the counter, while others require a prescription. They come in a variety of forms including creams, ointments, oral tablets, and suppositories.
Discharge caused by dysbiosis, bacterial infection, or a parasitic infection is often treated with antibiotics. This includes the following types of infections:
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Trichomoniasis or “Trich”
Antibiotics are not available over the counter and will require a prescription from a doctor. If you have been prescribed antibiotics for an infection, make sure to take them as directed – even once symptoms start to resolve. This helps to ensure that the infection is thoroughly treated.
Discharge caused by a viral infection must be treated with antiviral medication. This includes the following types of viral infections:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Antiviral medications are not available over the counter and will require a prescription from a doctor. It’s also important to note that viral infections cannot be cured. However, medication does help to slow the progression of an outbreak and prevent future outbreaks.
If medication has not been effective, surgery may be required. Although rare, it may be necessary in cases involving uterine fibroids, cervical cancer, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Preventative measures can also be taken to help reduce the risk of experiencing abnormal vaginal discharge. This includes wearing breathable materials, using condoms during sex, and getting regularly tested for STIs if you are sexually active.
Prevention and Management
Learn about your body
It’s important to be aware of what your discharge may be saying about your health so that you can take appropriate action where needed. Our free ebook All Types of Discharge and What They Mean is the perfect resource to have on hand for those days when you notice any changes to your normal discharge patterns.
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 as this can lead to dysbiosis or infection.
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.
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, can increase your risk of contracting a yeast infection.
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.
When to Seek Medical Attention
You should also visit your doctor anytime you notice unusual discharge or other symptoms of vaginal infections such as pain, cramping, or bleeding. This is because if left untreated, pathological discharge related to an infection can lead to more serious health concerns – such as pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.
If you are concerned about your discharge and how it relates to your fertility status, it may be a good idea to chat with a fertility coach. Mira’s own fertility coaches are here to listen to any symptom or concern you may have about your discharge, and they can provide holistic guidance on all things STI prevention, pregnancy, and lifestyle.
It’s also important to make sure that you keep up with your regular OB/GYN checkups. If you are sexually active, it is recommended to get a gynecological exam at least once per year. After the age of 21, it’s also recommended to get a Pap smear at least once every three years.
What is the difference between vaginal discharge and cervical mucus?
The term “vaginal discharge” refers to any non-period fluid that leaves the vagina. This includes vaginal fluid, cervical mucus, arousal fluid, day-old sperm, and dead cells from the cervix and vagina.
Cervical mucus on the other hand is produced by the cervix. 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.
Is white vaginal discharge a sign of pregnancy?
In some cases, yes. An increase in heavy, white discharge may be an early sign of pregnancy. This type of white discharge is often referred to as “Leukorrhea”, and it is caused by increased estrogen and progesterone levels throughout pregnancy.
Can abnormal vaginal discharge be treated with over-the-counter medication?
It depends. Mild yeast infections can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medication. However, STIs, BV, and severe yeast infections will require a prescription from a healthcare provider.