Difference Between Normal and Abnormal Vaginal Discharge

Some Discharge Is a Sign of a Healthy Vagina

Healthy vaginas produce fluid. When these fluids change, it can signal a problem. How can you tell the difference between normal and abnormal vaginal fluids?

This article describes healthy vaginal fluids. It also explains which types of discharge may mean there's an infection.

Signs of Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

The Natural Balance of the Vagina

One of the many functions of your vagina is to provide a route to your uterus and reproductive system. The fluids in your vagina help to create a naturally acidic environment. The pH of your vagina helps prevent infections. It also helps to promote a good balance of bacteria or flora.

Your vagina keeps itself clean and healthy with clear, mucus-like secretions. But sometimes, the vagina's natural balance can be disrupted and those fluids can change.

Normal Discharge

First, it’s important to know that all vaginas secrete fluids. Glands in your vagina and cervix produce small amounts of fluid that flow out of your body every day. These fluids lubricate the vagina.

Normal discharge also helps to clean the vagina by removing old cells. These fluids don't usually have any odor at all. They look clear or milky. Sometimes, you may notice a fluid that is thin and stringy.

Some of the things that can disrupt the vagina's environment include:

  • Douches (devices or liquids to wash the vagina)
  • Feminine hygiene products (tampons, pads, and deodorants)
  • Antibiotics (antibacterial medications)
  • Pregnancy
  • Unprotected sex
  • Diabetes (a health condition that affects how your body turns glucose, or sugar, into energy)

Your Cycle Affects Vaginal Fluids

Your menstrual cycle has a large effect on the type of fluid your vagina makes. About halfway between your periods, you will see a normal increase in clear discharge. More wetness and clear fluid signal ovulation. That's when your ovaries release an egg. After you ovulate, your vaginal fluid has less water in it. Your vagina may then feel drier.

It's important to know your own body's patterns. Cyclic changes in your vaginal fluids are important clues to your health. Normal changes are a sign that your endocrine system is working well.

It's also important to know that you're more vulnerable to infections just before or during your period. That's because the pH balance of your vagina varies during your cycle. The acidic level is at its lowest point a few days before and during your period. Lower acid may make it easier for bacteria to thrive.

Recap

A healthy vagina secretes fluid daily. The amount and what it looks like can vary from person to person. That's why it's important to know what your "normal" is.

Signs of Abnormal Discharge

Differences in your vaginal fluids could mean you have an infection or other health condition. If you suddenly have much more vaginal fluid than you normally do, it may be a sign of a problem.

Color is also important. Bright yellow or green discharge could be a concern. Thick, clumped, or chunky discharge (like cottage cheese) or extra watery discharge can also mean something is amiss.

Some other signs of infection include:

  • Itching, discomfort, or rash
  • Burning when you urinate
  • Blood when it’s not time for your period
  • A foul odor

If you notice changes like these, talk to your healthcare provider to see what's going on.

What Different Kinds of Discharge May Mean

  • If discharge is whitish to pale yellow and thick and clumped, and you have vaginal itching or burning, you may have a yeast infection.
  • If discharge is heavier than usual, watery, and grayish in color with a fishy odor, you may have bacterial vaginosis.
  • If discharge suddenly increases and is green or yellow with a bad odor—or is causing other symptoms—you should see your healthcare provider.

Recap

Changes in fluid color, thickness, or amount can indicate a possible infection. If you have an infection, you may also have itching, odors, blood, or burning.

Common Vaginal Infections

Common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV): This is the most common vaginal infection. It's caused by bacteria. BV is treated with antibiotics. It won't get better with over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for yeast infection.
  • Yeast infections: Vaginal yeast infections are common. You can find OTC treatments online or in a drug store. However, you shouldn't self-diagnose a yeast infection unless you have previously been diagnosed by your healthcare provider.
  • Trichomoniasis: This curable sexually transmitted infection (STI) is caused by a parasite. It can sometimes cause a fishy odor.
  • Chlamydia: This STI is caused by bacteria. Discharge can have a strong smell.
  • Gonorrhea: This STI is also caused by bacteria. It can cause you to have more discharge than normal. You may also have a thinner or creamier discharge than is normal for you.

A note for those who use tampons: If you leave a tampon in too long, you may develop an infection that changes your discharge.

Treatment

The treatment will depend on the underlying cause. For a yeast infection, you can get OTC Monistat (clotrimazole), but you may want to see your healthcare provider before self-treating. 

For BV, you'll need a prescription. Usually, your healthcare provider will prescribe metronidazole gel.

You'll also need to see a healthcare provider if you think you may have an STI.

Recap

Bacteria, yeast, and parasites can cause infections that alter your discharge. Some can be treated with OTC medications, but STIs and bacterial infections usually need prescriptions.

Summary

Vaginas secrete fluids that change over the course of a month. These fluids keep the vagina clean and well-lubricated. They can also tell you a lot about what stage of the menstrual cycle your body is in.

Healthy vaginal fluids are generally clear or milky-looking. They are mostly water and don't have a strong smell.

You may have an infection or another health condition if your vaginal fluids change in color, consistency, or odor in ways that aren't normal for you. If you notice these changes, talk to a healthcare provider to see what's causing the differences. If you have an infection, you may need prescription medication.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing what your normal fluids are like and what indicates a problem is important at any age. Become familiar with your body's ebbs and flows. And be sure to consult your healthcare provider if you notice any changes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should normal vaginal discharge look like?

    Vaginal discharge normally varies throughout the month. A healthy vagina continually secretes fluids that lubricate the vagina and vulva. Normal vaginal discharge helps clean the vagina by removing old cells. It can be clear or milky looking and should not have a strong odor. 

  • What does discharge from a yeast infection look like?

    A yeast infection causes thick, clumpy, white, or pale yellow discharge that is commonly accompanied by itching and burning sensations. If you have never had a yeast infection before or if you are uncertain whether you have a yeast infection, see your healthcare provider. 

    Yeast infections are very common and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. 

  • Can I use vaginal discharge predict ovulation?

    Yes. The vaginal discharge becomes wet, stretchy, and slippery during ovulation and resembles raw egg whites. If you are trying to become pregnant, having sex when you notice this discharge will give you the best chance of pregnancy. 

    If you are trying to avoid pregnancy, you should use protection or abstain from sex when you have ovulation discharge. 

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