Vaginal discharge. Just the word seems to make people squeamish. But, like vaginal bacteria, most vaginal discharge (yes, we’re saying it again) is 100 percent normal. Hear that? The moisture in your underwear is totally NORMAL.
“I can’t tell you how many women apologize to me during a pelvic exam for things that are completely ordinary,” says Dr. Kelly Culwell, Chief Medical Officer for WCG. “Sadly, there’s an unbelievable amount of shame and many women have been taught to think their bodies are gross—which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
In fact, that stuff you see in your underwear is a pretty cool way for your vagina to send you clues about your sexual health. The color, texture and smell fluctuates with your menstrual cycle and with changes in your vaginal pH. Knowing what it all means can help you pinpoint everything from your most fertile days to your least fertile days—or when there may a problem that that needs to be examined by your doc. “The most important thing is knowing what’s normal for you,” says Culwell.
Read on for the most common kinds of vaginal discharge, explained.
White and creamy
This milky stuff is what you’re most likely to see in the beginning of your menstrual cycle. “It’s usually odorless or mild in smell, and completely harmless,” says Culwell.
Clear and sticky
As you approach ovulation, estrogen levels increase causing your cervix to secrete discharge that is transparent and stretchy – almost like egg whites. “The composition and pH of the vagina are more favorable to sperm, increasing your chances of getting pregnant,” says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. This type of discharge may be a sign of your “fertile window,” so be sure to use extra precaution if you don’t want to get pregnant.
Clumpy discharge accompanied by itching and irritation may be the sign of a yeast infection. “We all have yeast, but sometimes they get the upper-hand and this overgrowth can cause inflammation,” says Minkin. Yeast thrive in warm, moist environments, so opt for underwear in breathable fabrics like cotton and avoid lounging in sweaty yoga pants or wet swimsuits for long periods of time to lower your risk.
“This can be a sign of Trichomonas, a sexually transmitted infection that causes a frothy discharge along with an unpleasant, fishy smell,” says Minkin. It’s unlikely to go away without treatment, so check in with your doc and they can treat you with a simple dose of antibiotics.
Discharge can leave a yellow tint on your underwear and be totally normal, so don’t panic if it’s not completely white. When should you worry? If it smells unusual for your body or you’re also experiencing discomfort. “Discharge that’s yellow and smelly can be a sign of Bacterial Vaginosis or BV—which is what happens when the natural pH of your vagina is off and allows nastier organisms to grow,” says Minkin. Yellow discharge and pain when you pee could be a sign of chlamydia or gonorrhea. “Untreated it can get passed between sexual partners and may lead to pelvic inflammation, so it’s best to check in with your provider for treatment as soon as possible,” says Minkin.
Brown or bloody
Spotting between periods is super common. “Brown discharge is just a little old blood that was leftover from your cycle,” says Minkin. “Some women also may see some red discharge around the time they ovulate.”
It’s typical to see less moisture right after your period ends. And it’s ok if you don’t notice much discharge at any time. “The amount of vaginal discharge naturally varies from person to person,” says Minkin. Mucus levels can also change with the use of hormonal birth control and are likely to shift over the course of your life.
Bottom line: “A little moisture isn’t a bad thing,” says Minkin. Check in with your provider if you see anything worrisome—and know that most problems are easy to treat and no reason to panic.