What are the different types of vaginal discharge and what do they mean?

Most of us will at some point have looked down at the discharge in their underwear and thought things like ‘why is it that colour?’, ‘why is there so much of it?’ and ‘is that normal?!’

Vaginal discharge is still very much one of those taboos that many people don’t feel comfortable talking about. And we definitely still get sold the story that discharge is unclean, even though normal vaginal discharge actually helps to prevent infection and keep our vaginas healthy and happy!

We turned to Mooncup Advisor, Theresa to find out the different types of vaginal discharge and what they mean.

Your menstrual cycle and discharge – different types of vaginal discharge throughout your cycle 

Most of us start experiencing discharge around or in the year before our first period. The amount of discharge you get sometimes reduces as you age, and commonly drops significantly during the perimenopause.

You may get different types of vaginal discharge throughout your menstrual cycle. The type, consistency and colour of your discharge will be guided by which stage of the menstrual cycle you’re in. So, understanding your discharge can also help you to better understand your cycle. Knowing what discharge is normal, and what isn’t can also give you hints about your own health and wellbeing, as changes from the norm can sometimes indicate that something else is going on.

Your menstrual cycle consists of four different phases. The function of each phase is different and represents an ebb and flow of our hormones across a cycle. 

Your cycle begins with the first day of a period and ends when the next period begins. An ‘average’ menstrual cycle is 28 days long, but we’re all beautifully, naturally different, and anything between 21-40 days is considered normal. 

Depending on the length of your cycle, the different phases we’re talking about will occur at different stages of your own cycle. So it’s again important to know what’s normal for you.

Phase one – the menstrual phase ie. your period

Phase one of your cycle starts on the first day of your period and ends when your period finishes. During each cycle, your body works to thicken the lining of the womb (called the endometrium). This thickening is designed to nurture and feed any potential pregnancy you might have. 

The bleeding you experience during a period is caused by your body realising that you aren’t pregnant so it’s shedding the additional layer it had created.

Vaginal discharge during your period

Production of vaginal discharge is generally quite low during a period and, on the whole, you’re unlikely to notice its presence if you’re bleeding anyway.

Phase two – the follicular phase

Phase two also starts at the beginning of your period but it lasts until ovulation. So there is some overlap of the first two phases. During this phase of your cycle, hormones are released that enable the egg to develop in one of your ovaries, ready for ovulation.

Vaginal discharge in the follicular phase

During the follicular phase, your oestrogen levels rise. The glands in your cervix start making cervical mucus and this is what you may see as vaginal discharge. In her book ‘Period Power Maisie Hill describes the discharge at this point as “quite sticky, a bit like rubber cement – rubbery, springy and relatively thick”.

As you start to approach ovulation, you’re likely to notice your discharge become runnier and turn a creamy colour, giving it an appearance a bit like lotion.

The phases of the lunar cycle

Phase three – ovulation

The next phase of your cycle is ovulation. In this phase, hormones tell your ovary to release its mature egg, and the egg is swept down the fallopian tube and towards the uterus (womb). 

The time around ovulation is when you are most likely to get pregnant. Ovulation happens mid-cycle, so if your cycle is 28 days, this would be around day 14. 

Vaginal discharge around ovulation

The discharge that you’ll see just before and during ovulation is described as looking like raw egg white. It’s really stretchy and slippery, and for some people discharge will significantly increase at this stage. This discharge is the most ‘fertile’ type of discharge and sperm can live for up to 5 days in it.

Phase four – the luteal phase

The luteal phase of your cycle starts after ovulation and lasts until you begin your next period. If you have not gotten pregnant, the egg will break down, your hormone levels will drop, and your body will prepare for the next period. And the cycle will begin again.

Vaginal discharge during the luteal phase:

You’re likely to notice much less discharge at this time. Any discharge you do have may be drier, crumbly and white, or with a slight yellow tinge.

Changes to ‘normal’ vaginal discharge

There are a few common reasons why your discharge may change. Some of them can be a sign of an underlying health issue. If you notice a change in the smell, colour or texture of your discharge, and you have concerns about this, you should always speak to your doctor.

Why has my discharge changed colour?

If you’ve noticed a change in the colour of your vaginal discharge, then this can sometimes be a sign of an underlying infection.

Discharge that has become thick, white and may look a bit like cottage cheese, can indicate you have a thrush infection. Vaginal thrush is not a sexually transmitted infection. It is caused by an overgrowth of something called ‘candida’ that often lives harmlessly on the body. 

Thrush often also causes irritation and itchiness of the vagina and may cause a stinging feeling during sex or when you pee. Thrush is a common infection and can usually be treated fairly easily with over-the-counter medication.

However, there are certain circumstances in which you should see your doctor or visit the local sexual health clinic if you think you have thrush.

Yellow or green vaginal discharge

If your discharge has become yellow or green, this could be a symptom of gonorrhoea or trichomoniasis, both sexually transmitted diseases (STI’s). Gonorrhoea or trichomoniasis may also cause vaginal irritation and soreness or discomfort when peeing (amongst other things). If you think you may have either condition, you should visit your local sexual health clinic to discuss this and get any necessary treatment.

Other STIs such as chlamydia can also cause changes to vaginal discharge. If you have any worries around this, it’s best to discuss it with a doctor or sexual health nurse.

Why does my discharge smell bad?

It’s normal for healthy vaginal discharge to have an odour. But if your discharge has a strong or unpleasant smell it could be a sign that something else is going on.

A change to the smell of the vaginal discharge is one of the most common symptoms of bacterial vaginosis or BV. Discharge associated with BV may often have a strong, fishy smell. BV may also cause discharge to become thinner and grey or white in colour. If you think you have BV you should see your doctor or local sexual health clinic as you may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Why am I bleeding between periods?

You may sometimes get blood-stained discharge or spotting between periods. While this can be normal, for some it can also be a sign of various other issues, and should not be ignored.

A small percentage of people may experience spotting around the time of ovulation, and while this isn’t a cause for concern it should be discussed with a doctor to rule out any other potential causes.

Other reasons for bleeding between periods include:

(For other potential causes of bleeding between periods take a look at the NHS website here)

Ultimately, if you’re experiencing bleeding between periods and have any concerns then you should book an appointment with either your doctor or local sexual health clinic to discuss this and so that they can investigate the cause. 

What can you do to keep your vaginal discharge healthy?

There are a few things you can do to try and keep your discharge healthy and your vagina happy. These include:

  • Wash your vaginal area using plain water only
  • Avoid using soaps or gels (both perfumed or unperfumed) when cleaning around the vagina 
  • Avoid using deodorants or scented wipes around your vagina
  • Don’t wash the inside of your vagina (also known as douching). 
  • If you’re using a menstrual cup to manage your periods and clean it with soap or sterilising solution, make sure to thoroughly rinse it again before use. Any residue of cleaning solution may cause irritation to the vagina.

Vaginas have been keeping themselves clean for many centuries without “intimate cleaning products”. When cleaning your vagina, water is all you need and a “less is more” approach is definitely best!

We’re all different and likely to feel differently about how to manage our discharge. It’s not necessary to wear anything to collect your discharge. Or you may choose to wear a small reusable pad at times if you prefer. 

pads and pantyliners left in all the time can cause vaginal irritation

There are different types of vaginal discharge at various stages of the menstrual cycle, and most of the time it is completely normal. 

Most of us have it and its presence can either be a reassuring sign that our body is functioning well, or give us the heads up that there might be something else going on that we need to look into. 

Knowledge is power, and when it comes to your health that can’t be a bad thing right?

The Mooncup® respects your natural balance

Toxins can be absorbed through the vagina. We have known this since 1918. Yet traces of chemicals, dioxins and insecticides have been known to be found in 5 of 11 disposable period products tested.

The nonabsorbent Mooncup however is made from soft, medical-grade silicone, is hypoallergenic and contains no dyes, BPA, bleaches, phthalates, plastic, or toxins.

While tampons absorb 65% menstrual blood and 35% vaginal moisture, the Mooncup won’t dry you out or leave fibres behind. The Mooncup respects your natural balance.

Love your vagina. Find out more about the Mooncup® and get yours here.

You may also be interested in:
How did the vagina become the new commercial frontier?
How to hack your cycle and own your period superpower
What are the five gynaecological cancers and their symptoms?
Get to know your vulva & vagina
How to choose the best menstrual cup for you?