vaginal discharge normal

The Truth About Vaginal Discharge and Odor

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Sexual Health Leave a Comment

Can we talk about vaginal discharge for a minute? It’s a fact: many people are still uncomfortable talking about basic female anatomy, including the vagina.

And perhaps even more taboo is the topic of vaginal discharge or heaven forbid odor. 

While we’ve come a long way from the days of using Lysol or Coca-Cola as a douche, reliable, accurate information about vaginal health is still not that easy to come by.    

So — firstly, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: your vagina’s normal odors and discharge are not something to be ashamed of, covered up, douched away, or perfumed.

For way too long, we’ve been sent the message that a normal, healthy vagina and its odors are something we need to be self-conscious about. Lots and lots of advertising has been aimed at making us feel like we need to febreeze ourselves. Let’s stop the madness.

Especially since most of the things we’re told to do are actually, in fact, harmful to vaginal flora. Even though we’ve known for years that douching isn’t a good idea, the practice still persists. And those feminine deodorant sprays, wipes, shampoos? Most are filled with harmful chemicals you don’t want to put anywhere on your body, let alone your vagina.  

In many cases, the best defense against many common vaginal infections is maintaining a healthy vaginal pH and strong vaginal microbiota — so let’s not compromise our strength in favor of maintaining an unrealistic and unhealthy ideal.

That said — sometimes there are reasons to be concerned about vaginal odors and certain kinds of discharge. 

So let’s have some real talk about what’s normal, what’s not, when to be worried, and what conditions can cause changes to our vaginal discharge and/or odor.   

Is Vaginal Discharge Normal?

For the most part, it is completely normal to have some vaginal discharge. And depending on where you’re at in your cycle, you may have more or less. 

Your vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Inside your vagina and cervix, fluid is secreted to help clean everything out and keep it healthy. Watch this quick video I made about this.

This fluid is usually what makes up vaginal discharge. 

The amount of discharge varies from woman to woman, and can change depending on where you’re at in your cycle (ovulation is a time most women see more). Some women can produce up to a teaspoon of discharge per day and it is perfectly normal for them. Different phases of your cycle will see your discharge change from thick white to thin and clear. 

All of this is completely normal.

Here are a few examples of types of discharge and what they can mean:

  • Clear, sticky: Normal
  • Clear, slippery or stretchy: Ovulation
  • White, creamy: Nearing ovulation
  • White, cottage cheese: Yeast infection
  • Grey, thick: Bacterial vaginosis
  • Green/ Yellow, thick: Bacterial vaginosis, STI
  • Brown, clumpy: Lochia, period, implantation, infection

Can Vaginal Discharge Be Different Colors?

Normal vaginal discharge is typically clear, white or light grey.

Anything that strays from that spectrum — like green or yellow — is probably a sign of an infection.

Let’s look at all the possibilities and what they mean.

Clear

Clear discharge is completely normal. This is just an indication that your vagina is healthy and functioning properly. Usually, mid-cycle, women who are ovulating will notice a clear, egg-white consistency to their cervical mucus in the days surrounding ovulation.

This is much like raw egg-white and for some women, may require a panty liner due to the amount of cervical fluid.  

This is 100% normal and absolutely nothing to worry about.

If you’re on hormonal birth control that stops you from ovulating, it is unlikely you’ll see this type of discharge that coincides with ovulation.

Clear discharge that is watery or stretchy/ slippery is considered normal.

White

White or light grey discharge is usually pretty standard too. Sometimes, a clear discharge will dry on your panties, leaving behind a whitish or grey residue. That’s completely normal.

Also, during and just before ovulation, cervical mucus can become white and thicker. This is totally OK. 

When discharge is thick, white, and the texture of cottage cheese, that accompanies other symptoms can be a symptom of a yeast infection though. Yeast infections can also involve an itching, and burning during urination.  

So — a good rule of thumb to remember is that white discharge is completely normal, unless it’s accompanied by an unusual smell, texture or general discomfort.

Grey

When discharge is grey colored and accompanies other symptoms it can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. This is an infection caused by imbalanced vaginal flora, and the discharge it produces usually results in a greyish color. This grey discharge is also associated with a mild to strong fishy odor (although not always), mild discomfort and can be accompanied by painful urination. Although it doesn’t usually itch, some women can experience itching.  

For a detailed breakdown of bacterial vaginosis, please check out this article.

Green Or Yellow

Discharge that’s green or yellow is a sign that you likely have an infection. Green or yellowish discharge can be an indication of trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia

While sometimes, these common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be asymptomatic, other times, women will experience green or yellowish-green discharge accompanied by painful urination, pelvic pain, and painful intercourse.

Bottom line, if you have discharge that has an unpleasant odor, is green or yellow, and you’re feeling unwell, contact your doctor to get tested.

Brown

Brown discharge can be a result of a few different situations. 

Firstly, it could just be the start or end of your period — if so, there’s nothing to worry about there. For a more detailed explanation of what the color of your period blood means, be sure to check out this article. 

It could also mean that you’re pregnant — a bit of brown discharge can mean that an egg has implanted into the uterine wall.

If you’ve just given birth and you’re experiencing brown discharge, it’s totally nothing to be concerned about — that’s called lochia. If, however, you develop a fever, nausea, vomiting or other signs of infection, it’s best to contact your medical provider immediately. 

Types Of Discharge Textures

Just as there are several types of discharge colors, there are quite a few different textures you may notice as well.

Here’s a breakdown of how your discharge may feel or appear.

Sticky

Sometimes, vaginal discharge has a sticky consistency. This type of discharge usually happens the week after your period, and it means your body is not in a fertile phase. During this time, discharge can be described as white, cloudy, and can come out in globs.

Creamy

When vaginal discharge is thick and creamy, this usually means you’re nearing ovulation. If you’re trying to get pregnant, now’s a good time to start trying. If you’re not trying to have a baby, now’s the time to abstain from sex. Creamy discharge can also be a sign of pregnancy, but to be sure, take a pregnancy test if you’re a cis-female and sexually active with males.

Slippery or Stretchy

Slippery, egg white consistency usually shows up right at ovulation. This clear discharge, when still wet, can be stretched between your fingers. Once it’s dried in your underwear, you may not notice the consistency so much. 

Cottage Cheese

If vaginal discharge is the texture of cottage cheese, this a pretty good indication that you have a yeast infection. Discharge as a result of a yeast infection is usually white or light yellow and is clumpy just like cottage cheese.  

Thick, Clumpy

A thick, clumpy, and a pus-like texture ischarge is typically a sign of infection. Discharge that looks like green or yellow mucus means it’s time to make a call to your doc. STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis can be the culprit if you’re finding mucus in your panties. Sometimes, bacterial vaginosis can cause a green-tinged discharge too.

Vaginal Discharge Smells – Types Of Odors

Vaginas all have a slight odor. Because of the bacteria that colonize the vagina, there’s a smell that’s given off. It’s typically not strong, fishy or pungent. It’s a sign of a completely normal vagina with a completely normal amount of healthy bacteria.

Your vagina smells like you.

And that’s not bad!

Women are not designed to smell like lavender, a summer breeze, or any chemically concocted potpourri. And yet, TV commercials tell us otherwise.

Even the aisle where you get your menstrual products has not only “vagina cleaning” products, but also “odor preventing” menstrual products.

Stop. Those have never been necessary.

Periods smell.

Vaginas smell.

Heck, your body smells.

But SMELL is not a bad thing.

It has always and still does, serve a biological purpose and I am so over women getting shamed for the way their vagina attracts a mate.

Yup, the way you smell brings all the boys to the yard. Sorry, the milkshake is only part of the equation.

If you’re noticing a strong odor, it could be a sign of something you want to have checked out by your doctor. If it is fishy, it is not you. It is bacteria.

If you’re concerned about odor, don’t be ashamed—instead, see your doctor.

Because if your vagina “smells” then that’s a symptom, not something you can just douche away.

An odor concern is a health concern.

Here are a few types of vaginal odors and what they can mean.

Types of Vaginal Odors

Fermented

If your vagina smells a bit like yogurt, bread, or beer, that’s because it’s full of the same kind of bacteria that also make these food products, lactobacillus. A slight tangy or sour smell means everything is just fine. 

Ammonia

A smell of ammonia can be a sign of infection. Sometimes bacterial vaginosis can result in a smell that some describe as chemical. Urine also has an ammonia smell (especially if you’re dehydrated) so keep in mind that urine in your underwear can also give off an odor. 

Fishy

If something smells fishy, it can also be a symptom of bacterial vaginosis, an infection that results when your vaginal flora becomes unbalanced. It can also be a result of an STI. If you’re experiencing a fishy odor, it’s probably time to make an appointment with your doctor.

Rotten

If you smell something pretty foul coming from your vagina, this could be an indication that you’ve forgotten a tampon. It’s actually a lot more common than you think. If you can’t get it out yourself, don’t be afraid to call the doc for help — they’ve been there, done that. Nothing to be ashamed about.

And on that note, if you are placing things in the vagina like garlic, jade eggs, or any other object that doesn’t have a pull cord like a vagina, please make not and ensure you remove it. Or better yet, don’t put things in your vagina that could possibly be forgotten.

Body Odor or Skunky

Yeah, so if your body has an odor then your vagina may put off this odor too. And yeah, some people’s body’s give off a smell that resembles cannabis

What Causes Vaginal Discharge

Trichomoniasis 

This is a parasite that is sexually transmitted. Not normal to have and so you definitely want to get it treated ASAP! It produces a foul-smelling odor, itching and pain with urination. Men don’t usually have symptoms.

Gonorrhea/ Chlamydia 

These are both STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) that are caused by a bacterial infection. They can have no symptoms or may present as pain with urination, discharge, and pain in the belly (or testes for men). 

Gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics such as ceftriaxone, azithromycin, and doxycycline. Chlamydia is often treated with doxycycline and azithromycin.

Yeast Vaginitis 

Overgrowth of yeast, aka candida, can occur due to shifts in pH. Read what causes it and to do about it here. 

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

Bacterial vaginosis is common and can result in a strong, fishy odor. It is a result of normal bacteria overgrowing in the vagina. Check out this article for what causes BV and what to do about it.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is the most common STI. It can lead to cervical cancer in some cases. With some strains, there are no symptoms. With others, people will develop genital warts.

There is rarely discharge associated with BV, but in the case it does progress to cancer, there may be a bloody, brown or watery discharge. Sometimes an odor accompanies this. 

Read this article for more info on HPV and what to do to prevent it.

Changes To Vaginal Discharge Or Odor

No matter the color, texture, or odor of your vaginal discharge, be sure to seek out a doctor’s opinion if you feel like anything has changed or is out of the ordinary for your particular vagina. 

There are many reasons that vaginal discharge or odor may change. Here are some of the reasons things could be different.

Hormonal Birth Control 

Discharge can be affected by the birth control pill. There’s typically a clear, egg-white consistency to cervical mucus around ovulation. But, as I explain in Beyond the Pill, hormonal birth control prevents ovulation, so women on the pill won’t experience that kind of discharge. 

Some IUDs work by thickening cervical mucus and this, in turn, prevents pregnancy. Many women using these IUDs experience an increase in discharge.  

The Pill and other forms of combined hormonal contraceptives can increase the risk of yeast vaginitis. If you’ve started birth control and have vaginal symptoms, definitely check with your doctor.

In Pregnancy

It probably comes as no surprise that vaginal discharge and odor can change big time if you get pregnant. Many women experience an abundance of thick, white discharge that’s sometimes referred to as leukorrhea when they get pregnant. 

Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs are a common reason for a noticeable change in discharge. Sometimes, STIs are not accompanied by discharge, however. Usually, discharge due to an STI is described as grey, yellow, or green. A bloody discharge may also be reported. Odors associated with STIs can be described as a fishy or chemical smell. 

BTW, STIs used to be called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but that is no longer the case because it was not only inaccurate, but also stigmatizing. Contracting an infection from sexual intercourse is not the same thing as having a disease. We get bacterial, viral, and yeast infections that manifest in a variety of ways in different parts of the body and can be treated.

Saying STD can prevent some people from seeking care. Let’s work together to change language to be more inclusive and medically accurate!

STIs also commonly result in itching, burning, or pain. 

Some common STIs that may result in a change in discharge or odor are:

  • Gonorrhea
  • Chlamydia
  • Trichomoniasis

Yeast Infections

Yeast infections typically change your discharge into cottage cheese. Sometimes, the odor of a yeast infection is reminiscent of bread or flour. Dryness, itching, and burning also typically are reported by women suffering from yeast infections.  

Bacterial Vaginosis

When your discharge suddenly becomes grey, watery, and fishy-smelling, you may have bacterial vaginosis. This overgrowth of bacteria is not strictly sexually transmitted, but can occur as a result of sexual activity.  

Desquamative Inflammatory Vaginitis

Typically seen in peri-menopausal caucasian women, this condition is usually accompanied by pain and copious green or yellowish discharge. There is often pain with intercourse, inflammation, and a rash that accompanies this. It can often be misdiagnosed as trichomoniasis since the symptoms are so similar.

Lichen Planus

This inflammatory condition can cause swelling and irritation of the vagina. Discharge can be heavy, yellow and sticky

Estrogen Levels

When estrogen levels change, the vagina changes. This can cause changes to discharge and odor. Some conditions that may be associated with changing estrogen levels are:

  • Menopause — when estrogen levels drop in menopause, discharge can dry up. Women who are nearing menopause will notice a marked decrease in the amount of discharge they produce.
  • Atrophic vaginitis — this condition generally appears after menopause has caused estrogen levels to decrease. This typically results in a watery, grey or yellow discharge.

Allergies

Your vulva, vagina, and the bacteria that populate the area are extremely sensitive. If you’ve recently started using a new laundry detergent, or maybe a spermicide or lube and you notice that your vagina is reacting with a change in odor or smell, allergies may be the culprit. Try taking away the potential allergen and see if things go back to normal.

Sex Hygiene

Don’t forget that good sex hygiene can go a long way towards protecting your vagina from experiencing foul odors or unusual discharge.

So many times, infections can be prevented by the proper use of condoms. Be sure to switch out for a new one if you’re changing between vaginal, oral and anal sex too.  

Vaginal Discharge Or Odor Isn’t Always a Need for Concern

Ladies, I feel it bears repeating: please don’t listen to the marketing that tries to get you to feel insecure about your vaginal odors or discharge.

Remember, there’s no reason at all to clean the inner part of your vagina — and the vulva doesn’t really need much more than water to get clean. Allow your vagina to clean itself like it was designed to do. Please be gentle with your vaginal flora and it will help protect you from infection and disease!

And please, for the love of all that is good, do not take advice about your vagina from people who don’t have a medical degree or license. If you are concerned, make an appointment to get it checked out.

I love that we have access to so much information by way of the internet and social media and yet, I’ve had patients do some dangerous things to their vagina and hormones based on what a well meaning person has recommended. 

Do you know someone who could benefit from this information? Please, share this post anywhere you hang out on social media.

Let’s keep normalizing the conversations about vaginal health and female sexuality.  Join my mailing list so I can share with you more information about hormones and health — I’ll even send you my popular detox guide as a thank you!

Citations

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https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/douching.

Ma B, Forney LJ, Ravel J. Vaginal microbiome: rethinking health and disease. Annu Rev Microbiol. 2012;66:371–389. doi:10.1146/annurev-micro-092611-150157

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780402/

STD Facts – Trichomoniasis – CDC.

https://www.cdc.gov/std/trichomonas/stdfact-trichomoniasis.htm.

STD Facts – Gonorrhea – CDC. 

https://www.cdc.gov/std/gonorrhea/stdfact-gonorrhea.htm.

STD Facts – Chlamydia – CDC. 

https://www.cdc.gov/std/chlamydia/stdfact-chlamydia.htm.

Pregnancy: Physical Changes After Delivery – Cleveland Clinic.” 1 Jan. 2018, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9682-pregnancy-physical-changes-after-delivery

Masfari AN, Duerden BI, Kinghorn GR. Quantitative studies of vaginal bacteria. Genitourin Med. 1986;62(4):256–263. doi:10.1136/sti.62.4.256

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1011962/

Vaginal Discharge (Early Pregnancy Discharge) – Leukorrhea https://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/symptoms-and-solutions/vaginal-discharge.aspx.

Spence D, Melville C. Vaginal discharge. BMJ. 2007;335(7630):1147–1151. doi:10.1136/bmj.39378.633287.80

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2099568/

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is one of the leading experts in women’s medicine and is a pioneer in her exploration of the far-reaching impact of hormonal birth control and the little known side effects that impact health in a large way. In her best selling book, Beyond the Pill, she shares her clinical protocols aimed at supporting women struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalance, including Post-Birth Control Pill Syndrome and birth control related side effects. A trained nutritional biochemist and Naturopathic Physician, Dr. Brighten is the founder and Clinic Director at Rubus Health, an integrative women’s medicine clinic. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and has been featured in prominent media outlets such as Forbes, Cosmopolitan, ABC news, and the New York Post. Read more about me here.