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What your vagina is telling you: How to interpret your discharge

Madeline Kennedy,Lauren Demosthenes   

What your vagina is telling you: How to interpret your discharge
LifeScience3 min read
Vaginal discharge changes in color and consistency throughout your cycle.     Volodymyr Bushmelov/Getty Images
  • White discharge should be clear to milky white and change in consistency throughout your cycle.
  • You normally produce about a teaspoon a day of discharge, but everyone is different.
  • If your discharge becomes curd-like or has a fishy odor, then it could be a sign of infection.

Normal discharge should always be clear to milky white in appearance. Moreover, most people with a vulva produce, on average, one teaspoon of discharge per day because it's how the vagina cleans itself.

Now, it's important to note that discharge usually changes in color and consistency throughout your menstrual cycle as your hormone levels fluctuate. For example, normal discharge is usually either:

  • Sticky and milky white right before ovulation
  • Watery and more like a raw egg white during ovulation

But if your white discharge starts to smell or look different than what you're used to, it could mean you have one of the following underlying conditions that require treatment.

1. Yeast infection

Related Article Module: Yeast infections aren't contagious - here's what causes them and how to avoid getting one

A yeast infection occurs when there is an overgrowth of fungus in the vagina.

This makes your discharge "curd-like or cheese-like," says Oluwatosin Goje, MD, an OB-GYN and professor at the Cleveland Clinic. Some describe it as looking like cottage cheese.

Along with chunky discharge, a yeast infection may also come with symptoms like:

  • Burning while peeing or having sex
  • Pain or itching in your vulva and vagina
  • Redness and swelling of your vulva

You can often treat a yeast infection at home using over-the-counter antifungal creams like miconazole (Monistat). But if the yeast infection doesn't clear up within a few days, you may need to see your doctor, who can provide a stronger medication.

2. Early pregnancy

Related Article Module: Pregnancy symptoms you can expect each trimester of your pregnancy and how to alleviate them

If you experience a notable increase in discharge, it could be a sign of early pregnancy.

Right after an egg is fertilized, your vaginal walls will thicken, which can produce extra discharge.

Early pregnancy discharge may be sticky and white or look more pale yellow. "It is usually painless, not irritating, and odorless," Goje says.

Some other signs that you might be pregnant are:

  • Swollen and sore breasts
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Cramping or spotting
  • Feeling fatigued

3. Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is a common vaginal infection that produces grey or white discharge with a strong, fishy smell. It happens when the "harmful" bacteria in your vagina overgrow and outnumber your normal, healthy bacteria.

Along with discharge, bacterial vaginosis can also cause:

  • Burning when you pee
  • Itching in your vulva and vagina

If you think you have bacterial vaginosis, you should see your doctor, who can prescribe antibiotic pills like metronidazole (Flagyl) or a cream to put in your vagina like clindamycin (Cleocin).

4. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Some STIs that may give you abnormal vaginal discharge include:

These infections can be contracted from sexual partners and may be accompanied by abnormal discharge that may have a strong, fishy odor.

Other symptoms associated with these infections are:

  • Itching, burning, or sore genitals
  • Pain while urinating

If you suspect that you have an STI, it's important to visit your doctor who can prescribe you antibiotics to fight the infection.

5. Sexual arousal

When you feel sexually aroused, blood flow increases to your vagina, which produces extra fluid.

"Arousal fluid is vaginal lubrication naturally made to aid penetration and movement," Goje says.

Arousal fluid is usually clear, but it can mix with normal discharge in your vagina and look whitish in appearance.

Along with getting "wet" you may have "increased vaginal sensations, throbbing, and swelling of the clitoral area," when you're aroused, Goje says.

Insider's takeaway

Related Article Module: What normal discharge looks like and when to be concerned about brown, yellow, or white discharge

Vaginal discharge is a normal part of your vagina's function, and white discharge usually isn't a reason to worry.

But if your discharge has a strong smell or comes with pain or itchiness, you may have an underlying condition that needs treatment.

If there's a sudden change in your discharge or you have unexplained symptoms, it's best to reach out to your doctor.

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