Vaginal discharge is fluid that flows through the vagina to keep it clean and moist and to prevent infection. Healthy discharge is usually mucus-like and has no smell. It may be clear or milky white. In some cases, it can be sticky and have a thicker texture.

These characteristics can change, according to the phases of the menstrual cycle. However, if discharge suddenly takes on an unusual smell, color, or texture, this may signal an infection. This is especially true if vaginal or vulvar irritation, pain, or itching accompanies the discharge.

Potential infections include:

If a person suspects that they have any of the conditions listed above, they should seek prompt medical treatment.

When does discharge occur?

WOman with watery discharge sitting down covering crotch with hands.
Discharge may become watery at different stages of the menstrual cycle.

It is possible to have vaginal discharge at any age. The amount of discharge depends on certain factors, including the phase of the menstrual cycle.

A person is likely to have more discharge if they are:

During pregnancy

It is especially important to be on the lookout for unusual discharge during pregnancy. Be aware of any changes, including:

  • a difference in smell, color, or texture
  • pain accompanying the discharge
  • soreness or itching in the vaginal area

These could signal a medical condition. Consult a doctor.

Normal discharge tends to be mucus-like and will not soak a pad or panty liner. See a doctor if an increased amount of wet discharge requires a pad or liner, as this can indicate ruptured membranes, commonly known as the water breaking.

Before a period

Vaginal discharge changes during the menstrual cycle.

In preparation for ovulation and during it, discharge tends to be stretchy and wet. The body produces more mucus at this stage than after it. Ovulation occurs between days 11 and 21 of the menstrual cycle.

Just before a period, discharge is often white or cloudy, because of raised levels of the hormone progesterone.

After a period

Immediately after a period, vaginal discharge may be brownish, due to remnants of blood in the vagina.

Once this is flushed away, a person may spend 3–4 days without discharge.

Bleeding at unusual times

The term spotting refers to vaginal discharge that contains small amounts of blood. If this occurs at an odd time of the cycle, it can indicate:

  • the presence of a foreign object
  • a hormone imbalance
  • an infection
  • a problem with the uterus.

Anyone who experiences spotting unrelated to their period should see a doctor.

People who have gone through menopause, defined as 12 months without a period, typically should not find blood in their discharge. Even a small amount should be brought up with a doctor.

During pregnancy, it can be normal to lose a little blood, especially following sex or a pelvic exam. The blood is usually light pink or brown, and the flow stops quickly.

If the blood is bright red, or if there is a lot of blood in the discharge, consult a doctor. This can indicate a miscarriage or a problem with the placenta.

Treatment

Woman taking antibiotic orally while holding glass of water.
Oral medicines such as antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the causes of watery discharge.

Abnormal discharge can signal a vaginal infection, usually bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or candidiasis.

These can be treated in the following ways:

  • Bacterial vaginosis: A doctor will usually prescribe antibiotic medication. This may involve clindamycin cream or oral or intravaginal metronidazole.
  • Trichomoniasis: This is treated with oral antibiotics.
  • Candidiasis: A doctor may recommend oral or topical medications. Some topical medicines are available over-the-counter (OTC) and can resolve the issue in 1–3 days. Oral medications are available by prescription.

Each of these infections requires medical treatment, but practicing good hygiene can help to prevent a recurrence. Wash the genitals frequently, either without soap or with a nonallergenic soap, such as one that includes glycerin. Dry the area by patting gently.

Other tips include:

  • changing underwear regularly
  • wiping from front to back, to avoid fecal contamination
  • washing the hands after urination and bowel movements

Although these measures may help, they cannot eliminate an infection.

Takeaway and when to see a doctor

Consult a doctor if:

  • more discharge than normal appears
  • discharge has an unusual smell, color, or texture
  • bleeding occurs between periods or after sex
  • pain accompanies urination
  • the vaginal area is itchy or sore
  • pain occurs in the pelvis, the area between the abdomen and the thighs

Vaginal discharge changes naturally, to coincide with the menstrual cycle or pregnancy. Be aware of unusual smells, colors, or textures, as these can signal a medical condition.