From the time of puberty through to menopause, it is normal to experience vaginal discharge. Some forms of discharge are healthy and have a role in fertility. Other types of discharge are associated with the natural shedding of skin cells from the vagina, and finally, some forms of discharge can signal a health problem. Charting discharge and knowing what to look for is important for monitoring gynecological and reproductive health.

Understanding the major functions of vaginal discharge can help you to identify what is occurring within your own body.

Normal Vaginal Discharge Associated with Fertility

Discharge that is related to fertility and the production of sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone is typically referred to as cervical mucus or cervical fluid. Generally these secretions are:

  • White or clear in color
  • Have no odor
  • Can stretch a little or a lot between your fingers
  • Come and go in sync with your menstrual cycle

This type of mucus often looks like egg-white or hand lotion and is healthy and normal.

Abnormal Vaginal Discharge Associated with Infection

Discharge related to an infection, such as a yeast infection, typically has a cottage-cheesy color and texture, has an associated itchiness and possible odor. Yeast infections are only one type of bacterial overgrowth, so there can be multiple signs and symptoms. If you suspect an infection it is recommended that you request a vaginal culture from your doctor. Other infections that produce abnormal discharge include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis - white, grey or yellow with a pungent fishy smell that is worse after sex
  • Trichomoniasis - white, grey or yellow that is frothy and has a strong smell
  • Gonorrhea - cloudy, thick yellow/green
  • Chlamydia - cloudy, yellow and may have odor

Normal Vaginal Discharge Associated with Continual Vaginal Sloughing

Just as cells are continuing dying and being replaced throughout the body, so is the case in the vagina. When dead cells from the lining of the vagina are shed, they appear on toilet paper as a slight shiny spot. Often when there are many of them excreted on our underwear, they dry and form a white or slight yellow crusty or crumbly discharge. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about.

Vaginal Discharge Associated with Arousal

Female arousal fluid is created in the Bartholin's Glands on either side of the vaginal opening. During times of arousal, fluid is secreted at the vaginal opening in order to facilitate penetration. Female arousal fluid is typically quite watery and dissipates almost immediately. Occasionally it will stretch in a similar fashion to cervical mucus, but it can be differentiated by it's lack of ability to stretch a second time and its lack of lubricative sensation.

Vaginal Discharge Associated with Semen, Lubricants, and other Foreign Fluids

It's important to remember that the vagina is a "dead end" so to speak. With the exception of the small opening into the cervical canal, which is designed only for the entry of sperm, there is nowhere for anything to go in the vagina. Therefore, if it goes in it will also come out. This means that semen, artificial lubricants, spermicides and anything else you intentionally put into the vagina can appear to be vaginal discharge, even if they don't in fact originate from the vagina itself.

Description of Discharge What it Might Mean
Egg whites Normal Fertile cervical mucus
Hand lotion Normal cervical mucus
Clumpy, thick, cottage cheese-like Abnormal Yeast Infection
White/slightly yellow crusty/crumbly (in underwear) Normal vaginal sloughing
Watery, appears during arousal Normal arousal fluid
Stretchy yellow Abnormal infection or food sensitivity
Light brown or pink spotting after ovulation Implantation bleeding
White, grey or yellow with fishy smell Abnormal - Bacterial vaginosis
White, grey or yellow with frothy texture Abnormal - Trichomoniasis
Cloudy, thick yellow/green Abnormal - Gonorrhea
Cloudy, yellow and may have odor Abnormal - Chlamydia

Specific instances of vaginal discharge can be concerning. Common questions related to the appearance of vaginal discharge include:

What Does Brown Discharge Mean?

Brown discharge for up to 36 hours prior to or following menstruation can be normal. Brown discharge lasting two or more days prior to the onset of bright red period bleeding is typically a sign that there is insufficient progesterone to maintain the uterine lining in the post-ovulatory phase of the cycle. Blood from the uterine lining that has not had the benefits of high levels of progesterone which vascularize the lining of the uterus will result in dark, tacky blood. If you have this kind of discharge for two or more days in a row it is a good idea to have your progesterone and thyroid function assessed.

Brown discharge can also occur in anovulatory cycles as a result of a similar hormonal imbalance. Track your cycles using cervical mucus and basal body temperature in order to confirm that you are ovulating. Brown discharge at the time of ovulation can be normal if it only happens occasionally. There are rapid hormonal fluctuations that happen during this time of the cycle and it can cause small amounts of bleeding.

Similarly, an implantation bleed typically happens 3-7 days after ovulation and is a sign of pregnancy. The implantation bleed can be brown or bright red in color.

Lastly, in rare circumstances red or brown bleeding between periods or after sex can be indicative of a cervical health issues such as HPV or cervical cancer. If you are concerned this may apply to you, seek the help of a medical professional immediately.

What Does White Creamy Discharge Mean?

White, creamy discharge is typically produced from a combination of small amounts of cervical mucus combined with some vaginal cell slough. It is normal to see this as we enter or leave a fertile phase while estrogen is either rising or falling.

White creamy discharge is also common in the early phases of pregnancy. It typically starts in the latter half of the luteal phase of the cycle (the time between ovulation and menstruation) and is called leukorrhea.

If you experience continuous white creamy or pasty mucus throughout the cycle, you may have insufficient progesterone in the latter half of your cycle, as progesterone is typically responsible for drying up all cervical mucus once ovulation has passed.

White discharge can also be associated with semen.

What Does White Clumpy Discharge Mean?

If your discharge looks a little like cottage cheese, you may have a yeast or other type of vaginal infection. Consult a doctor or consider some effective natural remedies to reestablish a healthy balance of bacterial flora in the vagina.

What Does Egg-White Discharge Mean?

Egg-white discharge is triggered by estrogen as ovulation approaches. It is a perfectly healthy and necessary part of a healthy menstrual cycle. It supports sperm survival through changes to the pH of the vagina and by forming microscopic roadways for the sperm to swim into the uterus.

If you have egg-white discharge for more than seven days in a row it can signify that your body is having difficulty triggering ovulation. Consult a Fertility Awareness Educator, Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner, Naturopathic Doctor, or Functional M.D.

What Does Watery Discharge Mean?

Watery discharge can be caused by a number of factors, depending on the associated conditions around the time you observe this discharge. Watery discharge can be released when we sweat or when we are aroused. Watery discharge can also be created when we are fertile. If this is the case, the watery discharge will typically be associated with a very slippery sensation when wiping.

What Does Yellow Discharge Mean?

Yellow discharge is common when the body is experiencing either acute or chronic inflammation. The cause may be regional, as in the case of cervicitis, or systemic as in the case of a cold, flu or food sensitivity.

Yellow discharge that is observed on toilet paper and is stretchy should not be confused with the yellow crumbly discharge found in underwear which is in fact just dead skill cells from the vagina. Just as we "slough" off dead skin cells on the rest of our body, the vagina also releases dead skin cells that can create a yellow crumbly appearance upon drying.

Yellow discharge that is stretchy between the fingers and observable on toilet paper upon wiping should be charted on a daily basis in order to ascertain the pattern of its production (if any). Chronic yellow discharge should be investigated for possible cervical health issues via a pap-smear or pelvic exam.

Occasional yellow discharge should be monitored for patterns that may help to correlate it to food and environmental sensitivities. Some people find it is produced in reaction to lubricant or latex (such as that in condoms).