What is normal vaginal discharge?

Originally Published: January 14, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 4, 2014
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Alice,

I've been trying to find out what exactly is "normal" vaginal discharge. Do all women have some sort of discharge at various times through their cycle (at ovulation, for example)? When is a discharge something you should be concerned about, and go to see a health professional?

Mushy

Dear Mushy,

While vaginal discharge can sometimes be cloudy, your understanding of what's normal needn't be! Discharge is common to all women and helps vaginas stay healthy by regularly flushing them out and maintaining their pH. Most women have some vaginal discharge throughout their menstrual cycle — even very young women who have not begun menstruating can have vaginal discharge. It is common to notice some discharge after using the bathroom or to find wet or dried discharge on your underwear. You can also go exploring and use your fingers to find out what your discharge looks and smells like on any given day. This kind of self-check can be useful — familiarizing yourself with how you normally smell or taste at various times of the month can help you to identify when your scent or flavor is off.

Here are some key ways to determine if your vaginal discharge is normal or if you have cause for concern:

 

Normal

Cause for concern

Color

Clear or whitish discharge (may be yellowish when dried)

Yellow or greenish discharge, or discharge that suddenly changes color

Scent

Mild scent or none at all

A strong, foul, sometimes "fishy" odor, or a sudden change in odor

Texture

Can vary from "paste" like and somewhat sticky to clear and stretchy, depending on where you are in your cycle and whether you are aroused

Clumpy or lumpy discharge, with "cottage cheese" like texture

Volume

Can vary from very little to quite a lot (particularly when ovulating or aroused)

Sudden changes in volume, particularly if other symptoms are present

As you can see, it is normal to have some variation in vaginal discharge during your menstrual cycle. In addition, different women can have different levels of discharge. Pregnancy and hormonal birth control methods may also make discharge heavier than normal.

Changes in the color, consistency, amount, and/or smell of vaginal secretions that are unlike your normal monthly changes may be a reason to be concerned. Infections are more likely to occur immediately before and during your period, when the vaginal environment is at its least acidic. Abnormal vaginal discharge can also be accompanied by itching, vaginal redness or soreness, rash, burning sensation when peeing, and/or pain. If you have any of these symptoms, it's a good idea to see your health care provider for an exam and treatment. Students at Columbia can make an appointment at Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). If you are not at Columbia, you can visit your regular health care provider or a health center such as Planned Parenthood for an exam.

Abnormal discharge may be an indicator of vaginitis, which refers to any irritation or infection of the vagina. Some common infections include bacterial vaginosis (BV), yeast infections, and trichomoniasis. Irritations of the vagina that lead to abnormal discharge can also be caused by douches, deodorant sprays, perfumed soaps, sex, allergies, and changing hormone levels. Because there are many potential causes of vaginal irritation, visiting your health care provider is the best way to determine what might be going on if you have any symptoms or concerns. Hopefully this helps clear things up!

 

Alice