That white or clear stuff that shows up in your underwear? That’s vaginal discharge — and most of the time, it’s NBD. If anything, it serves the super-helpful purpose of letting you know what’s happening in your body. Think of it as a body barometer: Certain changes in the smell and color of your vaginal discharge can tell you whether your period is en route or if you’re dealing with some kind of infection, like a yeast infection. Consider this your guide to vaginal discharge, what’s normal and what’s not.
First, a quick anatomy lesson: The inside of your vagina is covered in a mucus membrane, a type of body tissue that produces moisture. (It’s the same stuff that covers the inside of your mouth and nose, too — fun fact.) That moisture can come out of your vagina, where it looks like white, light yellow, or clear fluid. That’s your vaginal discharge. Vaginal discharge is normal, and everyone gets it — it’s actually how your vagina cleans itself (the more you know!). You can just take it as a sign that things are business as usual in your vagina.
Normal vaginal discharge looks white, light yellow, or even clear and can have either a slightly slimy or creamy texture, though it may look a little different (pink, yellow, or thicker) around your period. Vaginal discharge has a normal odor that ranges anywhere from sweet to musky, but it definitely shouldn’t smell bad or offensive. There’s no way to stop discharge — and you wouldn’t want to, since it not only helps protect your vagina against infection, but also provides lubrication during sex. There’s also no set schedule for it: Some women get discharge every day, while others notice it less. It just depends on your body and your menstrual cycle.
Abnormal discharge usually looks or smells different than what you usually have. It might be much heavier than usual, smell weird or fishy or turn a different color — basically, keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, since it could be the work of an infection. For that reason, it’s definitely worth mentioning to your doctor, especially if you also notice other symptoms, such as a fever, abdominal pain, itching or burning.
Abnormal vaginal discharge is not created equal, and different infections can lead to different changes. Here’s how to figure out what’s normal and what’s definitely not:
If it’s clear and doesn’t smell, then congrats: You’ve got normal vaginal discharge! If it’s stretchy, that might mean you’re ovulating — just an FYI. Exercise can also make it seem a little heavier than usual, but otherwise there’s no cause for concern.
Normal discharge is usually white to light yellow, and it might even change slightly from one to the other before or after your period. But if your discharge looks thicker and more like cottage cheese than your average white discharge — and your vulva and vagina also feel itchy — then you might have a yeast infection on your hands. The good news is that yeast infections are largely harmless and can usually be taken care of with an over the counter medication. That being said: If you’ve never had a yeast infection, it’s important to see a doctor first to make sure it really is a yeast infection and not something more serious. The bad news? Your vagina is really itchy, which can be majorly inconvenient.
If your discharge starts to look colorful, take it as a sign that something is definitely off. Gray or green discharge is abnormal, and especially so if it’s also chunky in texture, heavier than usual, or smells different. In that case, it could be the result of a bacterial overgrowth called bacterial vaginosis (which is an imbalance in bacteria and is not spread through sex) or a trichomoniasis infection, which is usually spread via sex (but could also be from sharing towels or swimsuits). You might also feel burning or itchiness. Other sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, can also cause yellow or green discharge. Whatever it is, you should absolutely get it checked out by your doctor, stat.
Brown or bloody discharge could mean a few things, TBH — it just depends on a few other factors. Spotting is when you have a small amount of brownish or bloody discharge before or in between your periods. It might be nothing, but if you’ve had unprotected sex lately, it could also be a sign of pregnancy. If you see brown or bloody discharge after your period, that’s normal. (Consider it a last goodbye before you’re onto the next phase of your menstrual cycle.) Rarely, bloody or brown discharge could be a sign of an abnormal growth or even cancer, so always check in with your doctor if you’re worried.
Your discharge has a normal smell, which people describe differently — sweet, musk, metallic. It shouldn’t smell bad. Trust your nose on this, because vaginal odors can be a sign of something more. Bacterial vaginosis is a very common infection that may not have any other symptoms besides a foul or even fishy odor. The same goes for pelvic inflammatory disease, which is usually spread via sexual contact. This is usually caused by sexually transmitted infections in your vagina that go up into your uterus and fallopian tubes to infect your reproductive system, where they cause pain and may cause scarring that affects future fertility. In both cases, it’s important to see your doctor.
Fortunately, it’s possible to maintain healthy, normal discharge. Wear breathable cotton underwear (with Always Sheer Liners, if you want to protect it from stains) and avoid things like douches, which can throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in your vagina. Also, use protection during sex to minimize your risk of sexually transmitted infections. Bottom line: Normal discharge is healthy and nothing to worry about — but if the colors change or it smells funky, it’s time to investigate.