In most cases, vaginal discharge is a healthy, regular occurrence. Vaginal discharge helps to keep the vagina clean and can change according to your body’s needs, such as providing lubrication during sex or thickening during ovulation. Vaginal discharge can also be a reflection of your overall health. However, some types of discharge can indicate an infection.
In this article, we’ll take a look the different types of vaginal discharge, including the symptoms, potential causes, and treatments of each. Though some types of discharge are healthy, the information outlined here will help you discern when to reach out to your doctor to identify a possible infection and appropriate course of treatment.
What Is Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge refers to fluid secreted from small glands located in the vagina and cervix. Regular discharge can leak from the vagina every day, removing dead cells, bacteria, and debris in the process. This helps to keep the vagina and genital tract healthy and clear of infection.
The amount, consistency, and color of healthy discharge varies from person to person. A person’s menstrual cycle can also affect their vaginal discharge:
- During menstruation, discharge can vary in thickness and appear red or brown in color.
- In the week directly following menstruation, there may be less vaginal discharge than usual, while its consistency can become cloudy, white, yellow, or sticky.
- Around ovulation, discharge may become extra thin or slippery.
- And in the days leading up to your next menstrual period, discharge can become lighter in color and less noticeable.
What Is Abnormal Discharge?
Abnormal discharge refers to vaginal discharge that looks, smells, or feels different than your regular discharge. Though the color and consistency of abnormal vaginal discharge can vary, common signs of abnormal discharge include discharge that is yellow or gray in color, or discharge that smells foul or fishy.
Types of Vaginal Discharge
Knowing how to recognize the different types of vaginal discharge is essential to understanding when your discharge is healthy and when you may want to see a doctor.
Below are the different types of vaginal discharge.
Normal period discharge color can range from bright red to dark brown and will often vary depending on the day of your cycle.
But if you experience brown spotting throughout the month or irregular or frequent brown discharge, it may be a sign of an irregular period.
In rare cases, brown discharge can also be a symptom of the human papillomavirus (HPV), or uterine, endometrial, or cervical cancer.
Reach out to your doctor if you experience brown discharge outside of your period or after menopause, especially if it’s accompanied by other symptoms.
Potential treatments: If a doctor identifies your brown discharge as abnormal, treatment will depend on the cause.
In the case of irregular periods, your doctor may prescribe hormonal contraceptives and/or lifestyle and nutrition changes.
In the case of uterine, endometrial, or cervical cancer, treatment will depend on the size and stage of the cancer, as well as your personal preferences.
Yellow discharge can be healthy or abnormal, depending on the shade of yellow and whether there are additional symptoms.
Discharge that is pale or light yellow is rarely cause for concern and can reflect a recent change in your diet or supplement intake.
However, discharge that is a darker yellow or yellowish-green can be a sign of a bacterial infection or sexually transmitted infection (STI) like trichomoniasis. Abnormal yellow discharge can also have a foul or fishy odor.
Potential treatments: Trichomoniasis and bacterial infections can be treated with prescription antibiotics, including metronidazole or tinidazole.
Healthy vaginal discharge can appear in a variety of white colors, from nearly clear to eggshell to cream.
When not accompanied by other symptoms, strange consistencies, or abnormal smells, white discharge usually indicates normal vaginal discharge.
Thick white discharge that is accompanied by itching, burning, or irritation could be a sign of a yeast infection. Cloudy, thick white discharge could also indicate a sexually transmitted infection, like gonorrhea or chlamydia. In rare cases, cloudy, foul-smelling discharge that accompanies abdominal pain and/or painful or frequent urination could be a sign of a kidney infection.
Potential treatments: For most yeast infections, a mild antifungal medication like fluconazole (Diflucan) will work to clear the infection.
If the underlying cause is a sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhea or chlamydia, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to clear the infection.
Treatment for a kidney infection consists of oral or IV antibiotics, depending on the severity of the infection and your overall health.
Green discharge can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or a sexually transmitted infection, like trichomoniasis. So reach out to your doctor immediately if you notice green discharge.
Potential treatments: Common treatments for the causes of green discharge include oral and vaginal antibiotics. Prescription antibiotics, like metronidazole, cephalosporins, doxycycline, or clindamycin, can treat PID, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis.
Pink discharge that appears at the beginning of your menstrual cycle is usually normal, but pink discharge that appears at other times of the month may indicate something else.
Some people experience light bleeding and/or pink discharge after intercourse with a sexual partner, which can be an indication of small tears or irritation in the vagina or cervix. In early pregnancy, pink discharge can also be a sign of implantation bleeding.
Potential treatments: Small tears in the vagina or cervix will generally heal on their own. If vaginal irritation is the cause of your pink discharge, your doctor may recommend wearing loose fitting clothing or making a change to your cleaning regimen, like omitting douching from your routine.
Implantation bleeding should not affect the viability of a pregnancy, but you should still reach out to your doctor when you notice pink discharge during pregnancy.
According to the CDC, yeast infections are the second most common type of vaginal infection in the United States.
In addition to intense itching in and around your vagina or vulva, yeast infections can cause soreness and a watery or cottage cheese-like discharge that is thick, whitish, and odorless.
Potential treatments: Though often annoying and uncomfortable, yeast infections are generally easy to treat. Mild infections can be treated with prescription antifungal medications like fluconazole (Diflucan) or over-the-counter antifungal creams like miconazole (Monistat).
Recurrent cases of yeast infections, which is defined by having four or more yeast infections per year, may be treated with a longer course of antifungal medication.
Differences in discharge during pregnancy is common and varies depending on how far along the pregnancy is. Some discharge during pregnancy should be addressed with your doctor, though. Types of discharge to flag with your physician include:
- Brown discharge or spotting in place of your regular period could be a sign of early pregnancy.
- During pregnancy, the amount of vaginal discharge increases and can be thin, white, slippery, or milky in appearance.
- A small amount of brown or pink discharge during pregnancy can be a sign of implantation bleeding and isn’t uncommon, but it’s important to let your doctor know if and when this happens.
- Dark brown discharge, especially when accompanied by cramps and possible clots, can be a sign of miscarriage.
When to See a Doctor
In most cases, vaginal discharge is a normal and reliable indicator that your system is working to keep itself healthy and clear of infection.
However, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor or gynecologist if your discharge is a different color or smell than usual. Specifically, if your discharge is dark yellow, green, or gray, has a cottage-cheese consistency, has a foul odor, or is accompanied by an itching or pelvic pain, let your health care provider know. These could be signs of an infection or a more serious condition.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Brown discharge during your period is often a normal and healthy occurrence. However, brown discharge outside of your period could be a sign of an irregular period, HPV, or uterine, endometrial, or cervical cancer. Reach out to your doctor if you notice brown discharge outside of your menstrual period or post-menopause.
Yellow discharge can be both healthy or abnormal, depending on the shade of yellow. Pale to light yellow discharge is often a sign of a change in your diet or supplement intake, but dark yellow and yellowish-green discharge could be signs of a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection.
White discharge is normal, unless it appears in a cottage cheese-like consistency or is accompanied by itching, burning, soreness, or irritation. In that case, it could be a sign of a yeast infection. Cloudy, thick white discharge could also be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.
For some people, brown discharge or spotting in place of your regular period could be a sign of early pregnancy. A small amount of brown or pink discharge during early pregnancy is normal and often a sign of implantation bleeding. Though implantation bleeding isn’t always cause for concern, it’s important to let your doctor know if and when this happens.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.