Most of the time, your discharge is there for good reason.
As if your period isn’t bad enough, the rest of the month isn’t exactly dry and clean. Your underwear is proof that your vag is basically a perpetually leaky faucet.
The gunk that comes from your lady parts during the three non-period weeks of your cycle is harmless enough. It can be a little uncomfortable if you feel it dripping, or it can be embarrassing if—you know—someone happens to see it. But your vaginal discharge is there for a reason, and most of the time, it’s helping your body stay healthy. Here’s how to tell if your discharge is normal, and what the color of your vaginal discharge actually means:
What Is Vaginal Discharge, Anyway?
Vaginal discharge is secreted by your cervix, thanks to the hormone estrogen. As estrogen levels fluctuate during your cycle, the quality and quantity of your vaginal discharge changes as well, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Your vaginal discharge serves several crucial purposes: It helps clean out the vagina, prevents vaginal dryness, fights off infections, and can even help you get pregnant. The cervical mucus helps protect sperm on its route through your reproductive tract, making it more likely to find the egg. In fact, the cervical mucus method is a strategy where you track your discharge quality throughout the menstrual cycle. This data can help you see when you’re most fertile (whether you’re attempting to get pregnant or totally avoid it).
The Types of Vaginal Discharge (and What They Mean)
Ready to be a skilled discharge detective? Start checking your cervical mucus for the following qualities and colors.
No discharge is common right before and after your period. This is when you’re least likely to get pregnant, and you might feel less naturally lubricated than usual during sex.
Sticky, tacky, yellowish-white discharge occurs a few days after your period, during the follicular phase of your cycle.
Creamy, cloudy discharge signals that ovulation is on its way. This means an egg is preparing for ovulation. You’re pretty fertile at this time.
Slippery, wet discharge like egg whites means you’re ovulating, and this is your most fertile window. In fact, doctors have a name for this special discharge: egg white cervical mucus, or EWCM. Its slippery consistency allows for easy sperm travel. This stage usually lasts around four days, and then you will see your discharge lighten up again and get less slippery (and more sticky) as your period approaches.
Light brown discharge happens after your period. It’s leftover menstrual blood that’s been hanging around the uterus a while, so it’s less red than your typical period blood. You probably know this as “spotting.”
Besides your usual menstrual cycle, you may also notice some expected changes to your discharge if you’re breastfeeding, using hormonal birth control, going through menopause, or having surgery on your cervix.
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge You Should Know About
The above types of cervical mucus are normal and healthy, but your discharge can also tell you when something’s wrong with your vagina. Look for these discharge colors and other qualities as a warning sign.
White, thick, lumpy discharge like cottage cheese could mean you have a yeast infection. It will be paired with a severe itching sensation that you definitely won’t be able to ignore.
Thin, grayish discharge with a fishy odor likely signals bacterial vaginosis. This is when excess bacteria develops inside the vagina, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While not dangerous on its own, it can increase your risk of further infections.
Yellowish-green, frothy, smelly discharge may be linked to an STD, such as trichomoniasis or gonorrhea. If you see this goop in your underwear, visit your gyno ASAP.
You might be able to avoid some of these infections by following good vagina hygiene. That includes everyday habits like not wearing jeans that are too tight, wearing properly fitted underwear, wearing condoms during sex, and not douching.
Can’t tell if your discharge is healthy or not? Find out how much vaginal discharge is normal here.
Cervical mucus and your fertility. American Pregnancy Association. (Accessed on January 3, 2022at http://americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/cervical-mucus/.)
Patient education: vaginal discharge in adult women (beyond the basics). Waltham, MA: UpToDate. (Accessed on January 3, 2022 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/vaginal-discharge-in-adult-women-beyond-the-basics.)
Vaginal discharge: what’s normal, what’s not. Jacksonville, FL: The Nemours Foundation, 2018. (Accessed on January 3, 2022 at https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/vdischarge2.html.)
What is bacterial vaginosis? Jacksonville, FL: The Nemours Foundation, 2018. (Accessed on January 3, 2022 at https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/bv.html.)
What is gonorrhea? Jacksonville, FL: The Nemours Foundation, 2018. (Accessed on January 3, 2022 at https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/std-gonorrhea.html.)What’s the cervical mucus method of FAMs? Washington, DC: Planned Parenthood. (Accessed on January 3, 2022, at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness/whats-cervical-mucus-method-fams.)