Vaginal Discharge: What’s Normal?

vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of the menstrual cycle, and it can change in consistency, color, and smell throughout the cycle. However, abnormal vaginal discharge that differs significantly from your usual discharge may be a sign of an imbalance in the vaginal bacteria, an infection or sexually transmitted infection, or in rare cases, cervical cancer. It is important to pay attention to any changes in your vaginal discharge and to consult with a healthcare provider if you have any concerns.

The vagina has a delicate ecosystem that is made up of a specific balance of bacteria, pH, and moisture. This balance is sensitive to changes both within and outside the body, and it can be disrupted easily. It is normal for the appearance, consistency, and volume of vaginal discharge to change throughout the menstrual cycle due to hormonal fluctuations. Vaginal discharge may also change during arousal, pregnancy, and after giving birth. However, sudden or significant changes in the smell, color, or consistency of vaginal discharge may indicate the presence of an infection or other health issue that requires treatment.

It is important to become familiar with the normal characteristics of your own vaginal discharge, including the smell, color, and any changes that occur during your menstrual cycle. This will help you identify any potential abnormalities or changes that may require further evaluation.

What's considered "normal" vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge color and consistency

The color and consistency of vaginal discharge can vary throughout the menstrual cycle. At the beginning of the cycle, it may be dry or sticky, or you may not notice any discharge at all. As the cycle progresses, the discharge may become creamy and whitish in the mid-to-late follicular phase. Just before and around ovulation, it may resemble stretchy, wet, transparent egg whites. After ovulation, the discharge may change back to being dry or sticky.

Vaginal discharge volume

The volume of vaginal discharge also tends to increase throughout the first phase of the cycle, with the most discharge occurring before and during ovulation. The volume of discharge then decreases in the days after ovulation and typically lasts until the end of the cycle. Vaginal discharge can also increase when a person is sexually aroused.

Vaginal discharge smell

The smell of vaginal discharge can vary, but it is usually mild and not unpleasant. It may mix with urine or blood around the time of menstruation, which can affect its smell on underwear. It is important to become familiar with your typical discharge smell in order to identify any changes.

Signs of "abonormal" discharge

There are several changes in vaginal discharge that you should be aware of:

  • Consistency: If the discharge becomes unusually thinner or thicker and more textured.
  • Color: If the discharge is gray, green, yellow, or brown.
  • Volume: If there is a significant and unexpected change in the volume of discharge.
  • Smell: If the discharge has a fishy, metallic, or just different smell.

Abnormal vaginal discharge can occur when the balance of bacteria in the vagina becomes disrupted. This can happen when the amount of "good" bacteria decreases and the amount of "bad" bacteria increases, or when certain types of bacteria that are usually present in small numbers overgrow. This imbalance can lead to conditions such as bacterial vaginosis (the most common cause of atypical discharge) and yeast infections.

Factors that may disrupt the vaginal ecosystem

There are several factors that can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the vagina, leading to abnormal discharge. These include douching and other cleansing practices, sexual activity and having a new sexual partner, hormonal birth control or IUDs, prolonged or irregular bleeding or spotting, use of antibiotics or steroids, menarche, menopause, or pregnancy, hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, uncontrolled diabetes, having less vaginal Lactobacillus bacteria, and possibly smoking and diet (although more research is needed).

Abnormal discharge can also be caused by sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The most common curable STI is trichomonas vaginalis, a parasite. Other common STIs include chlamydia and gonorrhea. Keep in mind that these STIs often do not have noticeable symptoms, which is why regular STI testing is important. Rarely, atypical discharge can be a sign of something more serious, such as cervical cancer. It is important to get Pap tests at the recommended intervals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing every 3 years from ages 21 to 65 if your results are regular, or up to every 5 years if you are tested for human papillomavirus (HPV) along with the Pap test.

What should I do if I have abnormal vaginal discharge?

If you have thick, white vaginal discharge with burning or itching and suspect you have a yeast infection, you may try using an over-the-counter treatment first. These usually come in the form of a vaginal pill/suppository or cream. If your symptoms do not go away after about a week or if you have recurrent infections, you should see your healthcare provider.

Yeast infections are usually not harmful, but it is important to make sure you do not have something else if your symptoms do not resolve. Applying a cold compress can help to relieve itching. Note that treatments can weaken latex condoms and diaphragms.

If you are experiencing other symptoms, it is important to visit your healthcare provider for a test.

They will examine your vulva and vagina and take a sample (swab) to be examined under a microscope or sent for a laboratory test. They may also test the pH of your vagina with a simple pH strip test.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) may go away on its own, but it often recurs. It is a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider about treatment. BV can cause uncomfortable symptoms and can increase the risk of contracting an STI, but it does not usually lead to health complications. In some cases, untreated BV can lead to infection after gynecologic surgery and pregnancy complications such as miscarriage and preterm birth. BV may also contribute to the development of pelvic inflammatory disease, but more research is needed.


The treatment of BV or an STI such as trichomonas, chlamydia, or gonorrhea usually involves putting an antibiotic gel or cream into the vagina for several days or taking a single dose of an antibiotic by mouth or injection (depending on the type of infection). More intervention may be needed for infections that have been left untreated and have become more complicated. It is important to note that many STIs do not cause symptoms or remain asymptomatic for a long time. This does not mean that they do not need to be treated as soon as possible. If you are sexually active, it is crucial to undergo regular STI testing.

Can yogurt, garlic, or tea tree oil cure vaginal infections?

There is mixed evidence on the use of certain foods and supplements for restoring and maintaining the balance of healthy vaginal bacteria. There is not enough evidence to include the use of yogurt or Lactobacillus probiotics in formal treatment recommendations, although there may be some benefit for certain people and it is unlikely to be harmful. Garlic and tea tree oil both have antifungal and antibacterial properties and are sometimes used as natural cures when applied to the vagina. However, there is not enough research to determine how effective they are at treating vaginal infections, and some people may find that these methods irritate the vagina. More research is needed. If you have symptoms such as itching and/or odor, you may be tempted to douche for relief. However, douching and cleansing will not help and may make things worse.

There are several ways to help prevent abnormal discharge and maintain a healthy vagina:

  • Do not douche.
  • Keep foaming and scented soap away from your vulva (or avoid using soap on your vulva and in your vagina altogether).
  • Be diligent about using protection with new and untested sexual partners.
  • Use a fresh barrier tool (such as a condom) if switching from anal to vaginal activity during sex.

Maintaining a healthy vaginal environment can help you avoid contracting STIs and experiencing uncomfortable symptoms and potential health complications. It is worth noting that you may be more prone to getting an STI during the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle (the second part of the cycle, after ovulation) when your immune system may be weaker. This is because your body creates an environment that makes it most possible for an egg to be fertilized and implanted in the uterus without interference.