Plus, what to do when it's time to see a doctor.

Anna Gragert
Updated Jun 11, 2021 @ 1:23 pm
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Credit: Luis Alvarez, Getty Images

If you have a vagina, you're probably very familiar vaginal discharge. It's one of those things that you can't really prepare for, but you probably deal with frequently. But here's the thing: vaginal discharge is normal and expected. According to Dr. Kelly Copeland, M.D., vaginal discharge is a mixture of fluid and cells from the reproductive system. "The uterus, cervix, and vagina all make mucous or fluid and slough off cells to stay healthy," she says.

But what about when your vaginal discharge starts to look or smell unusual? Well, there's a lot to learn when it comes to vaginas and vulvas, which is why we made a list of all the things everyone would benefit from knowing about vaginal discharge, including its function, what affects it, and when to visit a doctor.

1. Discharge is beneficial and necessary.

As previously mentioned, healthy vaginal discharge is a combination of cells and fluid. The discharge works to clean out bacteria from the vagina. Sexual health activist and educator Emma Kaywin, says it's "your home-grown vaginal cleaning tool," and it is. The vagina knows how to maintain and clean itself with little help and via discharge secretion.

2. The color of discharge can inform you of what's going on inside your body.

Typically, healthy discharge is white or clear and can appear pale yellow on underwear or a pad, says Dr. Copeland. "Brown, pink, or red discharge may indicate it is related to your menstrual cycle," she says. Green, grey, or yellow discharge is associated with an infection or bacteria, and thick white discharge is often a sign of a yeast, she explains. If it is yeast, Dr. Alyssa Dweck M.D. says it'll also be itchy down there.

3. If your vaginal discharge has a strong smell, you should see a doctor.

"Discharge that can be worrisome has a strong fishy or foul odor," says Dr. Copeland. It can also have a deep yellow, green, or grey color, and the consistency can be clumpy or frothy. "Probably most importantly, abnormal discharge is associated with irritation either internally or externally, which can include burning, itching, redness, and swelling." 

4. Discharge changes throughout the menstrual cycle.

One of the effects of your period will be a change in the color of the discharge. "A period at its onset will likely make your discharge predominantly brown, red, or pink, like a period," says Dr. Copeland. "Once the cycle finishes, your body recruits its next egg, and as it prepares for this, your estrogen levels rise causing discharge to become heavier and thicker." During ovulation, discharge can increase and become thinner to allow the passage of sperm and optimize the chances of getting pregnant.

That said, if the discharge is outside of the expected time of your menstrual cycle, blood-tinged, brown, red, or pink discharge should be evaluated by your doctor, says Dr. Copeland.

5. Your discharge changes when pregnant.

During pregnancy, it's normal to experience an increase in vaginal discharge. According to the Mayo Clinic, this happens to block the cervical opening and prevent bacteria from entering the uterus. Towards the end of your pregnancy, the United Kingdom National Health Service says you'll experience even more discharge that's usually a sticky, jelly-like pink mucus, which is a sign you're ready for labor

6. Birth control will also affect discharge.

Taking hormonal contraceptives, like birth control, can affect your discharge patterns, explains Dr. Copeland. Because most birth controls prevent ovulation, you may not experience the increased wetness or clear, thin discharge that usually happens during that time in your cycle.

7. The amount of discharge varies per person.

"The amount of discharge secreted can vary pretty significantly from person to person and from day to day," says Dr. Copeland. "There is a large variation in an amount from the menstrual and ovulatory cycle alone."

8. Normal vaginal discharge does not need to be treated.

Though some women feel the need to get rid of vaginal discharge with douching, the U.S Department of Health & Human Services doesn't recommend doing so. Remember, discharge is normal and beneficial. Douching washes away the healthy bacteria that prevents infections in the vagina and can cause other health problems. 

9. Sometimes discharge can be a sign of something more serious.

Typically, abnormal discharge is treated with over-the-counter medications or prescriptions from an OB-GYN. In rare scenarios, though, Dr. Copeland says it can be from something more concerning like a tumor or malignancy, which is a sign of cancer. She says if your symptoms do not resolve despite attempts to treat them, you should visit your doctor to explore a different treatment plan. 

10. Panty liners can help you deal with discharge, but they shouldn't be worn 24/7.

Wearing a panic liner on the reg can make you susceptible to infection. Dr. Mary Peterson, M.D. says, "the plastic backing on the panty liner prevents air from flowing through and retains heat and sweat, and wearing the same one for too long can lead to bacterial or fungal infections." However, when you do feel the need to use panty liners, it's recommended that you change them at least every four hours.