Unexpected marks in your underwear? In most cases, vaginal discharge is completely normal and all women (and vagina-owners) will experience it. However, if your discharge smells or looks unusual, it can sometimes indicate something is amiss.
We speak to Dr Karen Morton, gynaecologist and obstetrician at Dr Morton's – the medical helpline about the 7 most common types of vaginal discharge:
What is normal vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is produced by small glands in the lining of the vagina and the cervix, and seeing differing shades of white discharge in your underwear throughout the month is usually nothing to worry about.
'Vaginal discharge is perfectly normal,' says Dr Morton. 'If a women is not on the Pill and is at reproductive age, then there are very few days in a normal menstrual cycle where she won't have some kind of a discharge.'
The amount you produce will vary, but you may find you experience heavier vaginal discharge during pregnancy, when you ovulate and if you’re sexually active.
Here are the 7 most common causes of vaginal discharge, so you know what to look out for:
Clear stretchy vaginal discharge
Ever noticed that your discharge is occasionally clear and stretchy looking? This means that you're most likely ovulating and your ovary is releasing a mature egg that will pass through the fallopian tube for fertilisation.
'Two to three days before you start to ovulate, you will experience ovulation discharge, the texture being like raw egg white,' says Dr Morton.
This clear sticky fluid makes it easier for sperm to travel to the egg, which is also a great indicator for women who are wanting to conceive. If you're trying to get pregnant, it's wise to keep an eye on your discharge. It may also be worth using fertility lubricant.
Thick creamy white discharge
A few days after ovulation, you may not notice any discharge at all because the cervical mucus (which is the egg white discharge) is no longer needed to trap sperm. But don't be alarmed if you have a thicker creamier white discharge.
'After you have ovulated and produced eggs, there will be a release of the hormone progesterone in the blood stream, and this is the reason for the white discharge,' says Dr Morton.
As long as it's odourless and doesn't itch or burn, there's nothing abnormal about this discharge. It's just reflecting your bodily changes at different points in your cycle.
Thick gummy vaginal discharge
Believe it or not, your discharge can tell you when you're pregnant. At the beginning of your pregnancy, you may notice a heavier, gummy or thick discharge. This is because the cervix and vaginal walls get softer, and discharge increases to help prevent any infections travelling up from the vagina to the womb.
You can also experience discharge towards the end of your pregnancy as well. 'Most women will have an increased amount of vaginal discharge during pregnancy, particularly in the later stages,' says Dr Morton.
'As long as the discharge isn't smelly, itchy or blood stained then nothing needs to be done. The most important thing to be aware of is "Could this be leakage of waters?" If there's a lot of watery loss, get checked out by your midwife or the hospital.'
Yellow or green vaginal discharge
In most cases, differing shades of yellowy white discharge is completely normal, but sometimes it can indicate a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Bear in mind this is not always the case, as STIs can often can lie dormant with no symptoms - so if in doubt always get it checked out.
'No doubt that all common infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, can cause vaginal discharge,' says Dr Morton, 'but they are also often silenced and are causing much more serious problems higher up in the tubes – so it's better to get checked out.'
Clumpy cottage cheese vaginal discharge
If your discharge is odourless, thick and has a lumpy texture a bit like cottage cheese, it's likely to be a yeast infection, otherwise known as thrush. You may also experience itching, soreness, burning and irritation.
'Thrush usually occurs when there's an overgrowth of yeast that lives normally in your gut. But if this yeast gets out of control, it can lead to unpleasant symptoms,' says Dr Morton. 'A typical reason is taking antibiotics, for something unrelated like earache or tonsillitis, which kills off healthy bacteria.'
Thin vaginal discharge with a fishy odour
If you have an unpleasant looking mucus discharge that is accompanied by a fishy odour and a burning sensation, it could bacterial vaginosis (BV).
'This is also due to a loss of balance of the normal bacteria of the vagina,' says Dr Morton. 'It's also very common in older women when they don't have oestrogen, which creates moisture in the vagina and keeps germs in the right balance.'
Reddish brown vaginal discharge
You may experience spotting, which is a reddish, rusty brown discharge, before or after your period, which is perfectly normal and very common. If you're on the Pill, you may even experience spotting throughout your cycle. But a prolonged blood stained discharge can be more of a worry, so get it checked out.
'This could be a uniformity brown staining, slightly unpleasant smelling discharge,' says Dr Morton. 'It should be investigated as it could be something more serious higher up on the cervix or in the uterus.'
Further help and support
If you are at all concerned about vaginal discharge, it's worth getting checked out. Try one of the following resources:
- Ask your GP for advice.
- Find a sexual health clinic near you.
- Try Brook's Find a Service tool
- Call the national sexual health line 0300 123 7123.
- Call Worth Talking About on 0300 123 2930 (for under-18s).
Last updated: 08-10-19