HomeHealth TopicWomen's Health

How Do I Know If My Vaginal Discharge Is Normal?

The Unmentionables is a series that answers common questions we all have about our bodies but are sometimes afraid to ask.

Lois C. Bronstein, MDKatie E. Golden, MD
Updated on January 21, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Vaginal discharge is a normal and healthy part of any vagina. But because it can be associated with personal hygiene, some people are hesitant to ask about changes in their discharge.

  • It’s natural to experience changes in your vaginal discharge. And they don’t always mean something is wrong. Things that can affect it include the menstrual cycle, hormonal changes, sexual activity, and even certain medications. 

  • Certain changes in vaginal discharge, like a strong smell or abnormal color, may be signs of an infection. So it’s helpful to pay attention to what’s normal or abnormal for you.

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Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a healthy vagina. It’s a collection of fluid, mucus, cells, and microbes that protects your vagina against irritation and infection. It’s also the body’s way to naturally keep the vagina clean. But if you’ve wondered if changes in your discharge are normal, you’re not alone. Questions about vaginal discharge are one of the most common concerns women have. So let’s review what changes are normal for your body, and how you can tell when something might be off.

What is ‘healthy’ vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge can be clear, milky white, or cream-colored. The consistency can be thin and watery, thick and sticky, or stretchy and elastic. All healthy vaginas usually have a smell, and each vagina’s odor is different. But a normal vaginal scent isn’t strong or unpleasant. 

You may notice that your discharge varies with your menstrual cycle. It may change from thick and white to clear and slippery around the time of ovulation. Or the amount may increase around ovulation. Vaginal discharge can also vary with age. After menopause, for example, vaginal discharge normally lessens due to the decrease in the hormone estrogen

Many people notice changes in the amount or consistency of their vaginal discharge with:

  • Sexual arousal or activity 

  • Pregnancy

  • Birth control

  • Hygiene practices and products

However, some changes may be a signal that something else is going on. Being familiar with how your vagina normally smells will help you recognize when something isn’t right.

What is abnormal vaginal discharge? 

Although some vaginal discharge is normal, changes in the amount, consistency, smell, and color can all be signs of an underlying condition, such as irritation or infection. Here are some signs to look out for that could mean there’s a problem:

  • A change in odor that smells particularly foul, or even fishy

  • Changes in consistency, especially if it’s foamy or looks like pus or cottage cheese

  • Discharge with blood when you aren’t having your period, or any bleeding after menopause

  • Discharge along with itching, burning, swelling, soreness, or redness in the genital area

  • Pain when you pee or have or sex

What are some common infections that cause abnormal vaginal discharge?

Infections are a common cause of troublesome vaginal discharge. When the vagina is healthy, it maintains a delicate balance of “good” bacteria that make the discharge slightly acidic. This helps to prevent an infection from growing. But if this balance and acidity are thrown off, it can lead to the growth of other, harmful bacteria. And the resulting change in discharge is usually noticeable.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also called sexually transmitted diseases or STDs) can cause abnormal vaginal discharge. Examples of these include:

But non-sexually transmitted infections can also cause changes in vaginal discharge. Some examples of these are:

  • Bacterial vaginosis happens when the bacteria that normally live in the vagina grow in excess. The color may range from white to greyish to green. The amount of discharge often increases, and it’s thin, with a strong fishy odor. 

  • Vaginal yeast infection is an overgrowth of yeast, which is a type of fungus. The discharge is often thick, lumpy, and resembles curds or cottage cheese. 

Does abnormal vaginal discharge always mean that I have an infection?

No. Anything that causes a change in the healthy balance of bacteria in the vagina can also cause abnormal discharge. Common non-infectious causes of vaginal discharge include: 

When should I see a healthcare provider? 

Most changes in your discharge aren’t a cause for concern, or a sign of a medical problem. But if you notice abnormal bleeding or changes that suggest an infection, your provider can help you figure out what’s going on. They can perform an exam to check in and around your genital area, as well as collect painless samples of the discharge for lab testing. 

The bottom line

Vaginal discharge is a normal feature of a healthy vagina, and it varies naturally throughout the month and different life stages. Knowing what’s normal for you will help you know when to seek medical care. When there’s a change from what is normal for you, pay attention to the way your discharge seems different, as well as any other symptoms you may be experiencing. Pain, bleeding outside of a period or after menopause, and a new strong smell or change in color are all signs that it’s time to see a healthcare provider. 

The Unmentionables is a series that focuses on common curiosities about our bodies that, at some point, have been labeled as taboo, shameful, or embarrassing. But these are important questions we all have about our health, and we should be able to ask them. This series aims to dispel the stigma, normalize the discussion, and openly address these important health topics. 

Don’t be shy. Someone else has the same question, so ask away!

References

Alexopoulos, C. J. (n.d.). Fungus. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

American Cancer Society. (2018). Signs and symptoms of vaginal cancer.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Trichomoniasis – CDC fact sheet.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). What are the symptoms?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Bacterial vaginosis – CDC fact sheet.

ColumbiaDoctors. (n.d.). Noninfectious vaginitis. Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Estrogen's effects on the female body.

National Health Service. (2021). Vaginal discharge.

Office on Women’s Health. (2018). Your menstrual cycle.

Office on Women’s Health. (2019). Menopause basics.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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