Vaginal discharge: what it is, why it happens, and what different types mean?

Woman with panties around her ankles sitting on toilet

That white or clear stuff that sometimes shows up in your underwear is vaginal discharge – and most of the time, it’s no big deal. Vaginal discharge is actually really helpful in that it lets you know what’s happening in your body. Think of it as a body barometer – certain changes in the smell and colour of your vaginal discharge can tell you whether your period is en route or if you’re dealing with some kind of infection, like a yeast infection. Consider this your guide to vaginal discharge – what’s normal and what’s not.

What is vaginal discharge?

The inside of your vagina is covered in a mucous membrane, a type of body tissue that produces moisture. (It’s the same stuff that covers the inside of your mouth and nose too.) That moisture can come out of your vagina, where it looks like white, light yellow or clear fluid. That’s your vaginal discharge. Vaginal discharge is normal, and everyone gets it – it’s actually how your vagina cleans itself (the more you know!). You can just take it as a sign that things are running smoothly.

Normal vaginal discharge looks white, light yellow, or even clear and can have either a slightly slimy or creamy texture, though it may look a little different (pinker, yellower, or thicker) around your period. Vaginal discharge has a normal odour that ranges anywhere from sweet to musky, but it definitely shouldn’t smell bad or offensive. There’s no way to stop discharge – and you wouldn’t want to, since it not only helps protect your vagina against infection, but also provides lubrication during sex. There’s also no set schedule for it – some women get discharge every day, while others notice it far less. It just depends on your body and your menstrual cycle.

What is abnormal vaginal discharge?

Abnormal discharge usually looks or smells different than what you usually have. It might be much heavier than usual, smell weird or fishy or turn a different colour – basically, keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, since it could be the work of an infection. For that reason, it’s definitely worth mentioning to your doctor, especially if you also notice other symptoms, such as a fever, abdominal pain, itching or burning.

What are the different types of discharge, and what do they mean?

Abnormal vaginal discharge is not created equal, and different infections can lead to different changes. Read on to learn how to figure out what’s normal and what’s definitely not.

What does clear discharge mean?

If it’s clear and doesn’t smell, then congrats: you’ve got normal vaginal discharge! If it’s stretchy, that might mean you’re ovulating – good to know. Exercise can also make it seem a little heavier than usual, but otherwise there’s no cause for concern.

What does white or light yellow discharge mean?

Normal discharge is usually white to light yellow in colour, and it might even vary slightly between the two before or after your period. But if your discharge looks thicker and more like cottage cheese than your average white discharge – and your vulva and vagina also feel itchy – then you might have a yeast infection. The good news is that yeast infections are largely harmless and can usually be taken care of with over-the-counter medication. Having said that, if you’ve never had a yeast infection, it’s important to see a doctor first to make sure it really is a yeast infection and not something more serious. The bad news? Your vagina is really itchy, which can be majorly inconvenient and extremely uncomfortable.

What does green or grey discharge mean?

If your discharge starts to look colourful, take it as a sign that something is definitely not right. Grey or green discharge is abnormal, especially if it’s also chunky in texture, heavier than usual, or smells different. In this case, it could be the result of a bacterial overgrowth called bacterial vaginosis (which is an imbalance in bacteria and is not spread through sex) or a trichomoniasis infection, which is usually spread via sex (but could also be from sharing towels or swimsuits). You may also feel a burning sensation or itchiness. Other sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia, can also cause yellow or green discharge. Whatever it is, you should definitely get it checked out by your doctor, ASAP.

What does brown discharge mean?

Brown or bloody discharge could mean a few things, depending on a few other factors. Spotting is when you have a small amount of brownish or bloody discharge before or in between your periods. It might be nothing, but if you’ve had unprotected sex lately, it could also be a sign of pregnancy. If you see brown or bloody discharge after your period, that’s normal. (Consider it a last goodbye before you’re onto the next phase of your menstrual cycle.) Bloody or brown discharge could simply be a sign that you’re ovulating, but in rarer cases, it could also be a sign of an abnormal growth, so always check with your doctor if you’re worried.

What does smelly discharge mean?

Your discharge has a normal smell, which people describe differently – sweet, musky, metallic. Whatever it smells like, it shouldn’t smell bad. Trust your nose on this, because vaginal odours can be a sign of something being not quite right. Bacterial vaginosis is a very common infection that may not have any other symptoms besides a foul or fishy odour. The same goes for pelvic inflammatory disease, which is usually spread via sexual contact. This is usually caused by sexually transmitted infections in your vagina that go up into your uterus and fallopian tubes to infect your reproductive system, where they cause pain and may cause scarring. In both cases, it’s important to see your doctor.

Fortunately, it’s possible to maintain healthy, normal discharge. Wear breathable cotton underwear (with Always Fresh and Protect Liners, if you want to protect it from stains) and avoid things like douching, which can throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in your vagina. Also, use protection during sex to minimise your risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. In summary: normal discharge is healthy and nothing to worry about, but if the colour changes or it starts to smell weird, it’s time to investigate.