Vaginal Discharge: What is Normal & When Do I Need to Let Someone Know?

Secreted daily from vaginal and cervical glands, vaginal discharge is a combination of fluids and cells that serves to remove old cells, provide lubrication, and protect against infection and irritation. The amount, consistency, and color of discharge varies from person to person, and according to where you are in your reproductive cycle. 

Each month, menstruating women’s bodies cycle through a variety of different hormones and stressors that affect the color of vaginal discharge.  It can be confusing to differentiate when your body is going through natural changes, and when you should seek professional help.

Normal Discharge Colors for Menstruating People: 

Various color ranges for vaginal discharge are normal during the month depending on hormone levels and where you fall in your menstrual cycle. A menstrual cycle typically lasts close to 28 days but can range from 21 to 35 days. (1)

Red Discharge:  Most commonly occuring during menstruation, which lasts around 3-5 days but can range from 2-7 days for certain people. This color of discharge indicates the shedding of the uterine lining during menses and can range from bright red to a rust color. 

White Discharge: Often a sign of vaginal lubrication and can vary from shades of a cream color to a light yellow. Slightly yellow shades can be considered a normal variation and can vary depending on your diet or supplements you are taking.(6) 

Clear Discharge: Considered the most common form of discharge, this type of discharge is all considered normal particularly with ovulation, arousal, and during pregnancy.  In a study that looked at vaginal discharge trends across the menstrual cycle, noted there was an increased overall amount of clear discharge during ovulation.(4) 

Discharge Norms During Menopause: 

Menopause is defined as 12 consectutive months without periods, where your body stops producing eggs for ovulation. The typical age range for menopause is late 40s to early 50’s, with the average age of 51.(1, 5) Menopause may also occur surgically after hyesterectomies in which the ovaries are removed. For menopausal people, it is normal to have vaginal dryness and a decreased amount of discharge, as well as no longer experiencing red discharge.  

While menopause is a natural biological process, it is advisable to let your physician know when notice changes in your discharge. You are possibly a good candidate for pelvic floor physical therapy if you are experiencing symptoms of urinary urgency, leakage, pain with sexual activity, or increased pelvic or abdominal pain. 

Potentially Abnormal Colors and Consistencies: 

The following colors of discharge listed may at times be considered normal, but could indicate a need to set up a visit with your doctor.

Yellow and Green Discharge: It is good to schedule a visit with your doctor if the color of discharge changes to a dark yellow or green, possibly indicating an STI or bacteria in the area.(3) 

Pink Discharge: This discharge can vary in shades from light to deep pink. It typically indicates small amounts of blood.  This can commonly occur prior to menstruation, may be caused by llight spotting after ovulation(6)  or can indicate implantation for pregnancy. Follow up with your physician if you notice large amounts of pink discharge. If the bleeding or pink discharge typically occurs following sex or if sex is painful for you, you may be a good candidate for Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy.  This can indicate tight pelvic floor musculature and lead to minor tears in the vaginal lining resulting in light bleeding. 

Red Discharge: It is recommended to see your doctor if red discharge occurs outside of your typical cycle, if it happens during pregnancy, bleeding is heavier than usual, if you are noting continual changes in cycle length, or occurring after going through menopause.(1) You are possibly a good candidate for pelvic floor physical therapy if you have increased pelvic, low back, or abdominal pain during menstruation or at certain times in your cycle. 

White Discharge: If the consistency of this discharge is similar to “cottage cheese”, has a strong odor, paired with skin irritation or itchiness, this can be a sign of a yeast infection and is recommended to see your doctor.(2,3)

Gray Discharge: This type of discharge is not a common form of discharge and may be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, and is commonly combined with symptoms of vulvar itching, skin irritation, odor, and redness.(3,8) Follow up with your physician if you note any of the symptoms listed.

Following Up With Your Doctor

The colors of red, white and clear are typical for discharge during a regular menstrual cycle. If your vaginal discharge starts to vary from those colors, reach out to your physician.  Other signs to make note of are changes in odor such as a stronger smell, increased itch through the vulvar area, abdominal soreness, and/or pelvic pain.7

Helpful things to keep track of and inform your doctor about:(8) 

  • Have you had similar symptoms in the past?
  • When did it start?
  • What is the color?
  • Do you have any other symptoms such as odor, pelvic pain, itching, and/or skin irritation?

Vulva Hygiene Tips to Reduce Risk of Infection or Abnormal Discharge(8) 

  • To wash your vulva regularly with cool to lukewarm water only
  • Wipe from front to back using plain white toilet paper
  • Avoid: vaginal sprays/powders, scented products, tight fitting leggings/pants, try not to sit in damp/sweaty clothing
  • Use unscented tampons/liners made with 100% cotton
  • Wear cotton underpants