The days leading up to a menstrual period are often associated with PMS symptoms such as cramping and bloating.
But the shifts in hormone levels also cause many people with vaginas to experience changes in vaginal discharge.
Most of the time, this increase or decrease in discharge is normal.
However, sometimes discharge before a period may be a sign of infection or pregnancy.
To help you determine when to see a doctor, in this article, I’ll first explain what causes discharge before a period.
Then I’ll discuss when this discharge may be a concern.
I’ll also share how vaginal discharge changes during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
Discharge Before Period: What Causes It?
Vaginal discharge is completely normal.
Also known as cervical mucus, discharge is made of water, old cells, and bacteria that the uterus, cervix, and vagina clear out to prevent infection.
Throughout the menstrual cycle, discharge volume, appearance, and texture can change.
This is typically driven by hormonal changes that trigger ovulation.
Discharge before your period can be caused by several things, including:
- Period flow: While most period flow is bright red, sometimes it starts out brown. This may happen if flow is light and does not rapidly exit the vagina, giving the blood time to oxidize in response to oxygen. Seeing brown discharge or blood before a period can be common. You may also notice an increase in pink or white discharge, which can also be normal for pre-period flow.
- Early pregnancy: The days before the start of expected menstruation can be dry for some people. For others, the rapid increase in hormones in early pregnancy can cause a noticeable increase in clear or white discharge. This happens because the cervix builds a thick mucus barrier to seal off the uterus and protect the developing embryo. Some early pregnancy discharge may also be brown or pink. It is even possible to have a very light period, which can make it challenging to recognize that you are pregnant. If you have unprotected sex and notice an abnormal increase in discharge without a strong odor around the time your period is due, consider taking a pregnancy test or seeing your healthcare provider.
- Perimenopause: During this time before menopause, some people have irregular or lighter period flow. Discharge before a perimenopause period could be clear, white, brown, pink, or red. It may appear before some periods but not others.
- Spotting after vaginal activity: Whether you had vigorous intercourse or a routine Pap smear, the vagina can be prone to light bleeding or spotting after penetration.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome: PCOS is a fairly common hormonal condition that can lead to irregular periods or spotting. In some cases, only discharge or light spotting happens when a period is expected.
When Should You Be Concerned?
Discharge is a normal part of maintaining healthy sex organs.
Most of the time, changes are due to normal hormonal shifts or aging.
What to be on the lookout for
If you have vaginal discharge and notice any of the following, see a healthcare provider:
- Sudden increase in discharge amount
- Foul odor or change in smell
- Change in color, especially if it is green, yellow, or gray
- Change in texture, especially if it is chunky like cottage cheese
- Other symptoms, such as painful urination, abdominal cramping, or fever
How to tell if discharge is normal
There is a wide range of what is considered normal discharge.
The best way to know if your discharge is normal is to pay attention to your typical menstrual cycle signs and symptoms.
Then you can identify any abnormal changes and describe them to your healthcare provider.
Vaginal Discharge During the Menstrual Cycle
Although each person is different, in general, vaginal discharge tends to ebb and flow with hormone changes throughout the menstrual cycle.
- Period flow: Normal period flow lasts for up to 7 days and includes some days of bright red or dark red flow. Additionally, the first or last days of the period (or both) can sometimes be a lighter flow that appears to be brown, red, or pink discharge. This whole process is part of the shedding of the uterine lining.
- After period: Some people with vaginas may notice 1-2 days of sticky, white or yellowish discharge after period bleeding stops.
- Pre-ovulation: As hormones that prepare a follicle to release an egg for ovulation increase, cervical mucus may gradually increase every 1-2 days. Its appearance will become more clear, watery, and slippery. This is known as fertile cervical mucus.
- Ovulation: Most people experience their highest volume of discharge for the 24-48 hours around ovulation. It is usually clear and watery and there may be enough of it to leave marks on underwear. Some people with vaginas experience light bleeding during or after ovulation, so in some cases, discharge may look a little pink or brown.
- Luteal phase: The luteal phase happens after an egg has been released and lasts until the next period starts. Discharge usually thickens or tapers off rapidly after ovulation, and the next week or so may be relatively dry with little or no discharge. The 1-2 days before a period begins are typically the driest of the cycle.
What You Should Know About Pregnancy Discharges
If you become pregnant, even before you miss a period, you may notice an increase in discharge.
In some cases, this discharge may be brown or pink, causing some to confuse it for the start of a period.
Discharge throughout pregnancy is normal.
However, discharge may also indicate an infection.
Because STIs can cause pregnancy complications, and yeast infections are more common during pregnancy, tell your healthcare provider about any discharge changes.
Normal pregnancy discharge should never be green, gray, yellow, or foul-smelling.
When to See a Doctor
If you have concerns about an increase in discharge or a change in smell or consistency, see a healthcare provider.
They can assess your other symptoms and may do an exam or testing to determine if your discharge is normal.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Are Vaginal Symptoms Ever Normal? A Review of Literature. (2004).
Clinical Review: Vaginal Discharge. (2007).
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. (2019).
Vaginal Discharge. (1990).