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Normal Vaginal Discharge vs. Abnormal Discharge: What’s the Difference?

Have you ever found a sticky substance in your underwear? What is it? Why does it happen? When is it abnormal? We’ll explain.

The vagina is a complicated and dynamic ecosystem. It contains a lot of bacteria and moisture, and it’s sensitive to internal and external changes. Fluid made by glands in the cervix and vaginal opening and fluid made by vaginal walls carry away dead cells and bacteria to help keep the vagina clean. This fluid is called vaginal discharge. 

Everyone’s body makes a different amount of discharge. Exercise, birth control pills, and stress can all cause changes in discharge too.

You may occasionally notice a change in the color, amount, or odor of your vaginal discharge. Does this mean you have an infection? Not necessarily. There are lots of types of vaginal discharge. Some are normal, and others may indicate a problem.

Check out this article for answers to common questions about normal and abnormal vaginal discharge.

Paying attention to your vaginal discharge is an important part of your health. Being familiar with your normal discharge — and its normal fluctuations — can help you detect abnormal vaginal discharge earlier and start treatment sooner. 

Here are three ways to check your vaginal discharge:

  1. Before you pee, wipe the opening of your vagina with white toilet paper. Check the color, odor, and consistency. 
  2. Take a look at the color and texture of the vaginal discharge on your underwear. 
  3. Sit on the toilet, squat, or stand with one foot up on the toilet seat or bathtub. Insert one or two clean fingers into your vagina. Check the color and texture of the discharge on your fingers. 

To best check the texture and consistency of the discharge, rub it and pull it between your thumb and index finger. Press your fingers together and slowly move them apart.

It might be helpful to write down everything about your daily discharge on a chart (or you can track it in an app like Flo). What’s the color and consistency? How does it smell? Keep in mind that some medication may change your cervical fluids.

Being familiar with your discharge can help you spot problems early. Regular pelvic exams are also important. 

There are three things to look out for: the color and consistency, volume, and smell. 

Color and consistency

Clear and watery discharge is normal vaginal discharge. You might notice a bit more clear, watery discharge after exercising. 

If your discharge is clear and stretchy like egg whites, it may be a sign that you’re about to ovulate. This type of fluid is also normal discharge. 

You may notice brown or bloody discharge at certain times in your cycle. This is normal during or toward the end of your period. 

Volume

Your discharge will typically increase in volume before ovulation. The volume will usually decrease around the first or second day after ovulation. It’s also normal to produce more vaginal fluid when you’re aroused. 

Smell

Normal vaginal discharge is odorless or mild smelling. Mixing with urine or blood from your period can change the smell of your discharge, but this is completely normal.

The changes in color, volume, and smell mentioned above are all normal. However, if you notice that the color, consistency, smell, or volume seem different than usual, it may indicate an infection or other condition. If you have concerns about changes to your vaginal discharge, make sure to talk to your health care provider, especially if you’re also experiencing itching or burning.

An unexpected and abnormal discharge color can indicate possible infection or other medical condition.

  • Bloody or brown — When you experience brown or bloody discharge outside of the normal changes associated with your period, it can be a sign of something more serious. Reproductive issues such as polyps, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, and cervical or endometrial cancer can cause brown or bloody discharge. Other symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain. 
  • Yellow — This may be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as chlamydia or gonorrhea. Some common symptoms of STIs include pelvic or abdominal pain, pain or a burning sensation during urination, increased vaginal discharge, and bleeding between periods. 
  • Yellow or greenish with a bad smell — Often, this is a sign of an STI called trichomoniasis. Common symptoms include itching, burning, irritation, and genital redness or soreness. You might also experience discomfort or pain during urination. 
  • Thick, white, cheesy, lumpy — This is a sign of a yeast infection. Common symptoms of a yeast infection also include swelling and pain around the vulva, itching, pain during sex, and pain or discomfort while urinating. 
  • White, gray, yellow, or greenish with a fishy smell — This may indicate bacterial vaginosis. Some other common symptoms include itching, pain, burning of the vagina or vulva, and a burning sensation when urinating or during sex. 

If your discharge has an unusual smell, there may be an underlying issue. Thin and white discharge with a strong fishy odor may indicate bacterial vaginosis.

If you have yellow or greenish discharge with an unpleasant odor, this might indicate trichomoniasis.

The menstrual cycle can sometimes cause the vagina to have a slightly metallic scent for a few days. Sex can also temporarily change the smell of your discharge.

An unusually thin or thick and more textured fluid may indicate abnormal vaginal discharge. 

Thick, white discharge that’s similar to cottage cheese, along with itching and burning, might indicate that you have a yeast infection. 

Abnormal vaginal discharge can happen when there’s a decrease in the amount of “good” microbes and an increase in “bad” microbes.

The following things can cause abnormal vaginal discharge:

  • Bacterial vaginosis
  • Yeast infections
  • Birth control pills
  • Cervical cancer
  • Chlamydia or gonorrhea 
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Vaginitis
  • Diabetes
  • Douching and cleansing practices
  • Sexual activity
  • Use of antibiotics or steroids
  • Hormonal changes
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Menopause
  • Pregnancy
  • Use of spermicides

Make sure to seek medical care if you’re worried about changes to your vaginal discharge. If you’ve noticed a change in color, odor, or consistency, or have other symptoms such as burning, itching, and pain, make an appointment with your health care provider right away.

Your health care provider may take a sample of the discharge, do a Pap test, and/or perform a pelvic examination.

If you have a yeast infection, your health care provider might prescribe medication. Some medication for yeast infections is meant to be inserted into the vagina; some is meant to be taken orally.

Treatment for bacterial vaginosis includes antibiotics, usually in the form of pills or creams.

Trichomoniasis is usually treated with oral antibiotics.

There are things you can do to keep your vagina healthy. Follow these tips to prevent vaginal infections that can lead to abnormal discharge:

  • Keep your vulva clean by gently washing it every day with warm water.
  • Keep foaming and scented soaps away from your vulva. 
  • Avoid feminine sprays and bubble baths.
  • Avoid scented pads and tampons.
  • Always use protection with new sexual partners. 
  • Wear cotton underwear.
  • Don’t use douches. They can upset the balance of bacteria in your vagina. 
  • Avoid tight clothing.
  • After going to the bathroom, wipe from front to back to keep bacteria from entering your vagina. 
  • Change your laundry detergent or fabric softener if you think it may be causing irritation.
  • Use latex condoms to minimize your chances of getting an STI. 

Being aware of what constitutes normal vaginal discharge and abnormal vaginal discharge is an important part of maintaining your health. Keep track of your discharge, practice good hygiene, and consult with your health care provider if you experience any unpleasant changes. This will help you spot problems early and get treatment quickly if you need it.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Vagina: What's Normal, What's Not.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 Feb. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/womens-health/in-depth/vagina/art-20046562?p=1.

“Vulvovaginal Health.” ACOG, Jan. 2020, www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Vulvovaginal-Health#treatment.

“Vaginitis.” ACOG, Sept. 2017, www.acog.org/patient-resources/faqs/gynecologic-problems/vaginitis#treated.

“The Facts - Gonorrhea.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Jan. 2016, www.cdc.gov/std/gonorrhea/the-facts/default.htm.

“STD Facts - Trichomoniasis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Feb. 2020, www.cdc.gov/std/trichomonas/STDFact-Trichomoniasis.htm.

“Vaginal Candidiasis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 Dec. 2019, www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/genital/.

“STD Facts - Bacterial Vaginosis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Feb. 2020, www.cdc.gov/std/bv/stdfact-bacterial-vaginosis.htm.

“Keeping Your Vagina Clean and Healthy.” NHS Choices, NHS, 18 Oct. 2018, www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/keeping-your-vagina-clean-and-healthy/.

“Gonorrhea.” Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 1 Apr. 2019, www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/gonorrhea.

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