What Does the Color of Your Discharge Really Mean?
For when it's not so clear and odorless down there, here's what you should know.
You can categorize vaginal discharge under "things you don't pay attention to unless they seem weird." While you may see a little more discharge when you're aroused or during certain times of the month, if your usually-clear-and-odorless discharge suddenly looks, feels, or smells different, it could be a telling sign that something is off down there.
It helps to establish a baseline and know what's typical for you. Clear, white, and cream-colored discharge of a creamy or egg white–like texture are all considered normal, but getting to know your personal "normal" will help you detect if anything's gone awry.
Here's how to decode your discharge and see if your vag is just ~doin' its thing~, or doing something you should worry about.
Milky White or Gray Discharge
"Thin, milky white or gray discharge is a common symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV)-the most common gynecologic infection in women of childbearing age-which is caused by an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina," says Roshini Raj, M.D., a gynecologist in New York City.
You can get BV from something that upsets the vagina's natural state of healthy bacteria, such as sex with a new partner, a new lubricant, a different type of condom, a new soap or body wash, or even just staying in your sweaty workout clothes for too long. (FYI, you'll probably notice a fishy type of smell, too.)
In general, BV isn't really scary, since it's super easy to treat with a dose of antibiotics. That being said, you don't want to ignore the symptoms.
"If left untreated, BV can increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and HIV, and increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, which may affect fertility, or can lead to pre-term birth and low birth weight)," she warns. BV can only be properly treated with a prescription from your ob-gyn or health care provider, so you'll want to book it to your doc for an appointment if things seem fishy down there (pun 100 percent intended).
Thick, White, Cottage Cheese–Like Discharge
To state the obvious, this is not where cottage cheese belongs. "White, cottage cheese–like discharge is associated with a yeast infection, which is caused by an overgrowth of fungus in the vagina and/or at the vaginal opening," says Dr. Raj.
Take note: "Yeast infections are commonly confused with bacterial vaginosis. But unlike BV, yeast infections do not cause a fishy or unpleasant odor," she says. So if you detect thick white discharge sans smell, it's likely yeast. (Here are five common yeast infection symptoms you need to know about.)
The good news: Yeast infections can be easily treated through over-the-counter creams or suppositories, as well as medicine from your healthcare provider. Speak to your ob-gyn or visit your nearest drugstore. You can try to self-treat with antifungal creams and over-the-counter remedies, but you're better off getting a prescribed antifungal from your ob-gyn to prevent it from coming back.
Yellow or Green Discharge
Causes of yellow discharge can vary from being absolutely normal to infections you should definitely address, says Jennifer Landa, M.D., an ob-gyn and chief officer at BodyLogicMD in Orlando, FL. "If your discharge is white, clear, or has a light yellow tinge to it, and doesn't accompany odor or itching, more than likely, it's normal discharge. If the yellow is a more intense color and is thick or chunky or there is an odor (and especially if you have pelvic pain), you are more likely to have an infection," she says.
And, unfortunately, that infection is probably an STD: "Frothy, yellowish or greenish discharge is a sign of trichomoniasis, commonly referred to as trich. Trichomoniasis is a common sexually transmitted infection in the vagina caused by a parasite," says Dr. Raj.
You'll probably notice a change in smell, too. "In addition to a change in discharge, trichomoniasis often causes a musty or unpleasant odor and can sometimes cause itching, burning, or irritation," she says. "Green discharge is usually thicker and has a foul odor," says Dr. Landa. Luckily, trichomoniasis can be treated with a prescription antibiotic. (See: 6 Reasons Your Vagina Smells and What to Do About It)
Chlamydia and gonorrhea (which are insanely common right now) may also cause yellow discharge, but it's worth noting that "some women with these infections have no symptoms at all," says Dr. Landa.
If you're seeing a questionable yellow or green tint, it's important to see your doc ASAP. "Some women with a more serious form of these diseases will develop pelvic inflammatory disease, and this can lead to serious consequences like infertility if not treated, so if you have pelvic pain with an off-color discharge, it's important to see your gynecologist right away," says Dr. Landa.
And, last but not least, remember to always remove your tampons. "Another instance where I've seen green discharge is when someone leaves something in their vagina for a long time, like a tampon," adds Dr. Landa.
Pink, Red, and Brown Discharge
Pink, red, and brown discharge are normal during your period-but otherwise, it may not be great news, since they're all signs of bleeding.
"If this is just before your period or after, then it is probably perfectly normal," says Dr. Landa. "It's not unusual to have a little bit of spotting at ovulation in the middle of your cycle, too, because levels of estrogen and progesterone fall to trigger the release of the egg. This drop in hormones at ovulation is similar to what happens right before you get your period, so some very light bleeding can happen-and sometimes light bleeding looks like a pinkish discharge." You can also experience spotting when you skip birth control pills, or if you just started or switched birth control methods while your body is in transition.
If you're bleeding randomly, however, it could signal that something else is wrong. If you have pink, red, or brown discharge at any time other than your period, it's best to chat with your ob-gyn, says Dr. Landa. "Pink discharge can also be a sign of abnormal bleeding, such as bleeding from the cervix or bleeding due to an infection," says Dr. Landa. For one, "bleeding from the cervix can be caused by a cervical polyp (a benign growth on the cervix that can be susceptible to bleeding). You may especially notice this after sex," she says. While they're not dangerous, polyps can be removed if they continue to cause symptoms.
Another reason for irregular bleeding is the sexually transmitted infection HPV (human papillomavirus)-certain strains of which have the potential to turn into cervical cancer if left untreated. "Many women can be infected with HPV and not develop any symptoms," says Landa, and the majority of women will fight off the virus, thanks to their strong immune systems, and have no recurring or chronic symptoms, she says. However, in the case that recurring symptoms (including irregular bleeding) develop, it could signify a problem.