Vaginal Discharge: What's Normal, What's Not?

When it comes to vaginal discharge, how do you know what's normal and what's not? Well, it's all a matter of color, smell, quantity, and feel.  Here, all the  information you need to understand what's going on down there.

What's Normal?

Every woman past the age of puberty has vaginal discharge. It's normal, necessary, and healthy. The vagina contains glands that secrete fluid to keep the vaginal tissues moist and clean. That mucous-like fluid collects dead skin cells and bacteria and discharges them from the vagina. Since the vagina is self-cleaning, it doesn't need any other type of cleaning fluid.  Regular bathing is enough.  In fact, using anything else, like a douche or vaginal spray, can irritate the vagina and cause infection. 

Vaginal discharge varies from woman to woman and throughout her menstrual cycle. It's likely to be different when you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or nearing menopause. After menopause, many women experience decreased vaginal discharge. It's normal for discharge to be clear, thick, or slippery during ovulation and sexual arousal. Lots of factors can change your discharge and still be normal. For example, you might notice a change when you take certain medications like birth control pills or antibiotics.

Normal vaginal discharge can be clear, white, thin, thick, creamy, and even occasionally blood-tinged (premenstrual and postmenstrual spotting). It may have no odor or even mild odor.

What's Not Normal? 

Vaginal discharge that:

  • Has an unusually strong, foul odor
  • Is abnormally thick or "cheesy," yellow, grey, or green 
  • Is accompanied by vaginal burning or itching

These are signs of vaginitis-inflammation of the vagina. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explains:

The vagina contains many organisms, such as bacteria and yeast that are important to its normal function. A change in the normal balance of either yeast or bacteria can result in vaginitis.

Some factors that can upset the normal balance of the vagina include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Changes in hormone levels due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause
  • Douching
  • Spermicides
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Infection

What Should You Be Looking For?

Foul odor. If you bathe regularly and practice good hygiene, vaginal discharge should not smell bad. If you notice a change from your normal fragrance, that might be a sign of an infection, like Chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or bacterial vaginosis.

Strange color. If your discharge changes from clear, creamy, or white to a yellow, green, or brown color, or if you have unusual bleeding between periods, that can be a sign of certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like Chlamydia, gonorrhea, or trichomoniasis, or non-STDs including bacterial vaginosis.

Odd texture. The most common vaginal infections are caused by the Candida fungus, AKA yeast infection.Yeast causes a thick discharge often described as "chunky" or like cottage cheese. Yeast infections are not STDs. They're commonly caused by conditions that allow fungus to grow (wearing a wet bathing suit for too long) or a change in the normal PH balance of the vagina. Yeast infections cause intense itching in the vagina and vulva, but are easy to treat with over-the-counter medications.

Funny feeling. Itching, burning, stinging, swelling, redness, rashes, welts, or any other symptoms of vaginal irritation are not normal.

What should you do?

If you've previously had a yeast infection diagnosed by a healthcare provider, and you're certain that's what's causing your current symptoms, doctors say it's safe to treat it yourself with OTC anti-fungal medications. 

If you're uncertain aoubt what's causing unusual vaginal discharge or you've recently changed sex partners, call your doctor or other women's health professional as soon as possible.