What is normal vaginal discharge?

What Your Vaginal Discharge Says About Your Health

Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked down at your under­wear and seen discharge.

If you were in a room full of women asked to do the same thing, chances are that you would see plen­ty of hands go up.

But what exact­ly is vagi­nal dis­charge — and what does it say about your health? 

Here are five things that your vagi­nal dis­charge may be telling you:

1. Your vagi­na is healthy and func­tion­ing correctly.

Some vagi­nal dis­charge is com­plete­ly nor­mal — and it’s even a good thing. 

Dis­charge, which con­tains old cells that lined the vagi­na, is one way in which your vagi­na cleans itself. It also plays a role in pro­tect­ing you from infec­tions in your vagi­na or vul­va (your exter­nal gen­i­tal organs).

Nor­mal vagi­nal dis­charge is usu­al­ly clear or milky. It can change in thick­ness and amount with your men­stru­al cycle. For exam­ple, you may notice that it is thick­er dur­ing ovu­la­tion (when your ovaries release eggs), when you’re sex­u­al­ly aroused, or while breast­feed­ing. After menopause, you may have less as your estro­gen lev­els decrease.

Also, while a lit­tle bit of vagi­nal odor is nor­mal for many women, healthy dis­charge doesn’t smell bad or have a notice­able odor. 

Not sure if you have nor­mal vagi­nal dis­charge? Sched­ule an appoint­ment with a Duly Health and Care gynecologist.

2. You have a yeast infection.

Vagi­nal dis­charge that is thick, white, and resem­bles cot­tage cheese may be a sign of a yeast infec­tion. This dis­charge is also usu­al­ly odor­less and may be watery.

Yeast infec­tions are caused by an over­growth of the fun­gus can­di­da, which is often due to preg­nan­cy, dia­betes, antibi­ot­ic or cor­ti­cos­teroid use, or hor­mon­al birth con­trol that’s high in estro­gen. While it’s not tech­ni­cal­ly con­sid­ered to be a sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tion (STI), you can get the infec­tion from a sex­u­al partner. 

Yeast infec­tions are incred­i­bly com­mon among women after puber­ty and before menopause. In fact, three out of four women will expe­ri­ence one of these infec­tions at some point, and about half will have two or more. 

Dis­charge is only one of the symp­toms asso­ci­at­ed with yeast infec­tions. The most com­mon symp­tom is itch­i­ness around and in your vagi­na. You may also have burn­ing, pain while uri­nat­ing or hav­ing sex, or red­ness and swelling. 

The good news is that yeast infec­tions are gen­er­al­ly easy to treat. Once you have con­firmed with your provider that it is a yeast infec­tion and not a dif­fer­ent type of infec­tion, you can use over-the-counter anti­fun­gal creams or your provider may give you a one-time anti­fun­gal pill to take by mouth.

3. You have a sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infection.

Cer­tain types of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tions (STIs) — infec­tions that are trans­mit­ted between part­ners dur­ing sex­u­al con­tact — can also cause vagi­nal dis­charge. The appear­ance of the dis­charge depends on which type of STI is the culprit.

If you find out that you have an STI, it’s impor­tant to treat it so that it doesn’t lead to fur­ther health prob­lems, such as pelvic inflam­ma­to­ry dis­ease — a dis­ease that can cause infer­til­i­ty or ectopic preg­nan­cy. It’s also crit­i­cal to take steps to avoid pass­ing the infec­tion on, like using con­doms and hav­ing your part­ner get tested. 

Did you know that you can get test­ed for STIs in our Imme­di­ate Care Centers?

4. You have bac­te­r­i­al vaginosis. 

Vagi­nal dis­charge that is gray or milky white, foamy or watery, or has a strong fish-like smell — espe­cial­ly after hav­ing sex — could point to bac­te­r­i­al vaginosis. 

Nor­mal­ly, the vagi­na has both good and harm­ful bac­te­ria. When bal­anced health­ily, they work togeth­er to main­tain an acidic envi­ron­ment in your vagi­na that pro­tects you from vagi­nal irri­ta­tion or infections. 

Bac­te­r­i­al vagi­nosis is an infec­tion that occurs when that bal­ance is dis­rupt­ed and there is more harm­ful bac­te­ria than good. It’s treat­able with antibiotics.

While bac­te­r­i­al vagi­nosis is not a sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tion, it is par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mon among peo­ple who are sex­u­al­ly active. This is because hav­ing sex with­out con­doms or hav­ing a new or mul­ti­ple sex­u­al part­ners can upset the bac­te­ria balance. 

You can also get bac­te­r­i­al vagi­nosis by using douch­es (clean­ing prod­ucts are usu­al­ly pre pack­aged mix­es con­tain­ing water and iodine, bak­ing soda, or vine­gar) or scent­ed sprays. You might think you’re clean­ing your vagi­na, but these prod­ucts actu­al­ly do much more harm than good. They can throw your bac­te­ria bal­ance out of whack, caus­ing bac­te­r­i­al vagi­nosis and poten­tial­ly lead­ing to prob­lems rang­ing from an increased risk of get­ting an STI to seri­ous prob­lems dur­ing pregnancy. 

The trick to real hygiene? Wash the out­side of your vagi­na with warm water and then let your vagi­na do its own thing. Remem­ber, your vagi­na has mech­a­nisms for clean­ing itself. 

5. There’s some­thing more seri­ous going on.

Abnor­mal dis­charge usu­al­ly isn’t a major cause for con­cern. It can often be chalked up to a treat­able infec­tion or using cer­tain hygiene products. 

How­ev­er, in rare cas­es, unusu­al dis­charge could be a sign of a more seri­ous prob­lem, like a vagi­nal can­cer.

See your provider if your dis­charge is accom­pa­nied by:

  • Pelvic pain

  • Fever

  • Bloody dis­charge (unre­lat­ed to your men­stru­al period)

  • Stool in the discharge

Also, make sure to see your provider if you have dis­charge after going through menopause. This could be a warn­ing sign of can­cer or a pre­can­cer­ous condition. 

When­ev­er you have a ques­tion about your dis­charge — or your pelvic health in gen­er­al — don’t hes­i­tate to reach out to your women’s health provider. They can make sure that you’re on the right path toward keep­ing your vagi­na healthy. 

  • Kimberly Napolitano MD, Hinsdale Obstetrician-Gynecologist

    To provide compassionate care.