Female Discharge: What’s Abnormal?

The vagina is a uniquely specialized passage. It performs more widely varying tasks than most organs of the body. Penises, tampons, and doctors’ speculums go in. Babies, menstrual flow, and vaginal discharges pass out. Managing all that traffic is not an easy task. To remain healthy and perform at its best, the vagina has a uniquely-calibrated and delicate ecosystem, this ecosystem requires a finely tuned balance of bacteria, pH, and moisture. This delicate dance is quite sensitive to changes, from within and outside the body, and doesn’t take much to throw it off.

During your menstrual cycle, it’s normal to notice different types of vaginal discharge. Influenced by hormones, depending on where a person is in their menstrual cycle, the vaginal discharge can vary in in appearance, consistency, and volume. Vaginal discharge also changes during sexual arousal, during and after pregnancy, and during breastfeeding. But significant or sudden changes in the smell, color or consistency of your discharge might mean something is not right, like an infection that needs treatment or even something more serious, such as cervical cancer.

What is taken as a “normal” vaginal discharge?

Vaginal Discharge Normal color and consistency

Depending on the time of the menstrual cycle, secretions make a clear, milky white, or have a slight yellow tinge to it. Sometimes it may be clear and thin. Other times there is stringy mucus. The discharge may be somewhat slippery or clumpy. The majority of women notice having small white or yellow stains on their underwear, varying with their menstrual cycles. Normal fluids will also form small dry yellow-white flakes or clumps in the pubic hair surrounding the vaginal opening. It’s also common to notice no discharge. That’s normal too. The secretions probably remain in the vagina without appearing on the outside.

Vaginal discharge volume

At the beginning of the cycle, during the first phase, the majority of women will notice their discharge increases. Peaking in the days before and including ovulation. Discharge volume then drops in the day or two after ovulation, which normally lasts until the end of the cycle.

Vaginal discharge smell

Normal Discharges from the vagina may not be noticeable at all, or may smell faintly like sour milk, but it’s not strong or unpleasant odor. In some cases, urine or blood around the time of menstruation, might mix with the discharge, which can affect the smells on your underwear. Familiarizing with your typical smell is key for identifying when something is wrong.


Signs of “abnormal” vaginal discharge

Consider changes in:

  • Smell: Foul, Fishy, metallic, or generally different than usual.
  • Consistency: discharge becomes significantly thicker and with more textured or unusually thinner.
  • Color: Secretion that is yellow, green, gray, or brown.
  • Volume: profuse and unanticipated in volume.

It’s useful to be familiar with what’s normal for you, so that you can use a change from that baseline to help figure out what’s wrong if you develop a problem.



Different types of abnormal vaginal discharge


Vaginal discharge: Gray-white. Foul or fishy smell.

Other Symptoms: Genital pain, itching, burning.

Is it STI: No.

Cause: Bacterial Vaginosis.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV):

The leading cause of vaginal complaints in the United States, BV is not an infection but condition in which the normal, healthy balance of the vagina is disrupted. Instead of being the most predominant bacteria, the lac-tobacilli (helpful bacteria) disappear, in their place large numbers of other bacteria (potentially harmful) overgrow. During the menstrual cycle, they can wax and wane, and are usually worse after intercourse. These massive numbers of bacteria cause a heavy discharge and change the acid-base balance of the vagina to alkaline. With the increased pH come increased concentrations in the vaginal fluid of proteins that tell you how bad they smell: putrescine and ca-daverine. On average the odor is like ammonia; a bad case smells like dead fish.

Treating Bacterial Vaginosis:

No over-the-counter medications for Bacterial Vaginosis exist; you need to check with your healthcare to get a prescribed course of treatment. The good news is that the discharge and odor clear up promptly with treatment (no more Bacterial Vaginosis symptoms). The bad news is that they can come back.

2-Thick, chunky, white

Vaginal discharge: Thick, chunky, white, and may look like cottage cheese, odorless or with a slight smell

Other Symptoms: Genital itching, redness, swelling or rush around the vulva, soreness, or pain. Some women experience pain when urinating or having sex.

Is it STI: No

Cause: Yeast infection

Yeast infection:

Yeast infection is a fungal infection, caused by the over-growth of yeast.  Candida albicans, or Yeast are normally found in every vagina, even in healthy ones. The over-growth of yeast produces white, cottage cheese-like discharge in addition to burning, itching sensations and soreness, or pain. Tight underwear, douches and diabetes can increase risk of yeast infections.

Treating yeast infection:

Although treating yeast infection is easy, it can get quite tricky. A lot of women feel itchy down there and race to the drug store to get over-the-counter yeast treatments. This can be a major mistake. Since yeast infection shares a lot of symptoms with other conditions, it could be something else! Making a quick assumption, and rushing to those treatments, not only will not work, but they may make your itching and other genital symptoms even worse, plus resulting in other side effects. Which will make it more difficult for a clinician to properly diagnose the real cause of your genital symptoms.

See your healthcare provider if this is your first episode of persistent symptoms, you are 13 years old or younger, you are pregnant, you have had more than three episodes this year, you have diabetes, you take cortisone by mouth, or you have HIV.

A yeast infection is identified by performing an examination under a microscope of the vaginal discharge, in order to detect the presence of yeast stems. If they are seen, and the pH and whiff tests are normal, and the diagnosis is plain, often no further testing needs to be done.


3-yellowish, green

Vaginal discharge: White to yellow, dark yellow, yellowish-green, or green. Foul or fishy smell.

Other Symptoms: Genital pain, itching, burning, and rashes.

Is it STI: yes

Cause: Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Sexually transmitted infections.

Persistent vaginal discharge always signals for your healthcare provider to check for some very common sexually transmissible infections (STIs). Only some STIs are known to noticeably affect vaginal discharges, there are 3 to be exact: chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. The most prevalent is chlamydia, but gonorrhea shares similar symptoms. They cause a yellowish-white discharge, with a little itching, and in some cases, constant pelvic pain. These infections affect the cervix but give vaginal symptoms. Although not as well-known as other STIs, such as, HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis is actually estimated to be the most common non-viral STI, If you’ve recently been infected with trichomoniasis, then your discharge might be yellow-greenish in color, or, perhaps, just yellow, depending on the presence of other bacteria.

Don’t forget that STIs often have no apparent symptoms (asymptomatic), which is why regular STI testing is so important.

4-Brown or bloody

Vaginal discharge: Brown or bloody

Other Symptoms: –

Is it STI: No

Cause: Different causes

Brown or bloody discharge is usually normal during your period, the shade of red can vary from cherry red to a rusty brown. But if you do spot red throughout the month, it can sometimes signal a serious condition, such as an infection. A late discharge at the end of your period can look brown instead of red when blood takes extra time to exit the body from the uterus, it oxidizes and comes out brown (the most common).

A brown discharge may signal a hormonal imbalance, if it’s accompanied by weight gain, insomnia, hot flashes, depression or mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and urinary tract infections.

After reaching menopause, brown or bloody discharge can be a sign of endometrial or cervical cancer, if you experience other symptoms such as:

  • weight loss
  • pelvic pain
  • feeling a mass
  • swelling in legs
  • persistent fatigue
  • trouble urinating or defecating

This is why it’s important to get a yearly pelvic exam and Pap for early detection and prompt treatment.


Summary of causes for each color of vaginal discharge:





  • healthy discharge
  • pregnancy
  • ovulation
  • hormonal imbalances



  • healthy discharge
  • yeast infection

  • bacterial vaginosis
Red or brown
  • menstruation
  • cervical infection
  • cervical polyp
  • endometrial or cervical cancer
  • cervical bleeding
  • irritation in the vagina
  • implantation bleeding
Yellow-green    sexually transmitted infection, such as:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhea
  • trichomoniasis




When to See a Doctor


Your body is pretty good at letting you know if something is wrong. It’s important to pay attention to your vaginal discharge. And be familiar with what is normal for you, and what may be signaling a problem. Make an appointment with your doctor if your vaginal discharge is Abnormal to you, or accompanied by these symptoms or signs:

  • itching
  • pain or discomfort
  • burning sensation while you pee
  • discharge with frothy texture
  • thick, cottage cheese texture
  • bleeding that’s unrelated to your period
  • bleeding after menopause( very serious, seek immediate help)
  • spotting after sex regularly
  • grey, green, or yellow discharge
  • a strong, foul odor

The doctor will perform a pelvic exam. They may also need to take a sample of discharge for testing.


Home care for vaginal discharge

  • Practice good hygiene and wear breathable cotton underwear.
  • Avoid using fragranced and scented bath products on your vulva and in your vagina altogether.
  • Opt for warm rather than hot showers.
  • Don’t use douches.
  • Practice safe sex and use protection.
  • Eat yogurt that contains live and active cultures.



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