It’s pretty much a universal truth that if you have a vagina, you’re going to have vaginal discharge at some point. The actual appearance of the discharge may vary, and some days will be heavier than others, but it happens—and it’s normal.
“The vagina’s job is to self-cleanse,” explains gynaecologist Dr Jessica Shepherd. “The way it does that is to have a discharge that continuously flushes out excessive and bad bacteria.”
So, what is vaginal discharge, exactly? Vaginal discharge is generally made up of mucus secreted by glands in your cervix (the narrow, neck-like passage at the bottom of your uterus) and cells shed from your vagina and cervix, says women’s health expert Dr Jennifer Wider.
Even though vaginal discharge is part of having a vagina, it’s rarely discussed. So it’s understandable, then, that you might be a little alarmed if your discharge suddenly looks different from normal. Some changes in discharge are normal during your cycle, while others should be checked out by a doctor, says gynaecologist Melissa Goist.
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Here are the major types of vaginal discharge to have on your radar, plus when you should call a doctor.
Normal: Clear discharge
This is probably your default discharge, Dr. Wider says, and you might notice that it increases after you do things like exercise and have sex. The amount of this discharge you produce on a daily basis varies based on your menstrual cycle, but you’ll often see less of it right after your period and more before you ovulate.
Normal: Milky white discharge
This is also normal and can show up at different times of the month, Dr. Shepherd says, particularly in the beginning half of your cycle. While this is generally normal, if you’re having other symptoms like itchiness and notice that your discharge is thick, it can be a sign of a yeast infection, Dr. Wider says.
Normal: Stretchy discharge
Your body is on a default to get pregnant, and your estrogen levels rise before you ovulate, Dr. Shepherd says. This can cause you to have more discharge than usual, and you’ll often be able to stretch it between your fingertips. This is generally a sign that you’re fertile, Shepherd says.
Normal: Pinkish discharge
It’s understandable that you might feel a little freaked out if you notice a pinkish discharge before your period, but you shouldn’t be. It could just be that some of your endometrial lining is shedding slowly and that your period will happen soon, Dr Wider says. If it’s not right before your period, it can also be a sign of implantation, aka an early sign that you’re pregnant, she says.
Red flag: Cottage cheese-y discharge
While a milky-white discharge is normal, cottage cheese-like discharge isn’t. “This is notorious for a yeast infection,” Dr. Goist says. If you’re experiencing this, try an over-the-counter antifungal vaginal cream like Monistat. If it doesn’t clear things up, call your doctor.
Red flag: Fishy-smelling discharge
In general, discharge shouldn’t smell like much of anything, other than a vagina. But if you notice a strong fishy smell, it could be a sign that you’re dealing with bacterial vaginosis (BV), a mild infection caused by bacterial overgrowth in the vagina. “The discharge can be gray or white, light or heavy, but the telltale symptom is the fishy odor,” Dr Wider says. BV is usually treated with the antibiotics tinidazole or clindamycin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so you’ll need to see your doctor about this one for a prescription.
Every woman is different, and there are slight variations on what is considered “normal” for every woman. It’s important for you to know what’s ordinary for you and what’s not, so you can act when something seems off, Dr. Goist says.
And, of course, whenever you’re in doubt, call your doctor. “That’s what we’re here for,” Shepherd says.