You might already know that it’s normal to have vaginal discharge. Discharge helps your vaginal tissues stay healthy, provides lubrication, and keeps your vagina clean, according to the Mayo Clinic. But seeing an unexpected color of vaginal discharge may give you pause (which is the more low-key way of saying it might totally freak you out). Here are the different colors your vaginal discharge can be and why.
If your discharge is white…
White discharge is often totally normal, Lauren Streicher, M.D., a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. Throughout your menstrual cycle, it can be common to see discharge that ranges from white and sticky to clear and slippery and more. (Though these fluctuations are less likely if you’re on hormonal birth control—you can read about how your menstrual cycle and birth control may influence your discharge here).
Even though white discharge can be just fine, sometimes it’s a sign of a yeast infection. This can happen if yeast in your vagina, typically a kind called Candida albicans, grows too much and throws off the balance of microorganisms in there, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
While having yeast and bacteria in your vagina is totally normal, they need to live in harmony for you to have optimal vaginal health. If you’re experiencing an overgrowth of yeast, you might see a thick, white, odorless discharge with the consistency of cottage cheese, and experience other symptoms like itching and burning of your vulva and vagina, a burning feeling during sex, and vulvar redness or swelling, the Mayo Clinic says.
A thin white discharge that comes along with other symptoms can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. This condition happens due to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in your vagina. Other symptoms include a strong fishy odor, itching, and burning when you pee.
White discharge can also sometimes be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia (which is bacterial), gonorrhea (also bacterial), or trichomoniasis (which happens due to a parasite). These may cause additional symptoms like a strong vaginal odor, itching, and burning, but symptoms aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes people with these STIs don’t have any signs of infection.
If you have white discharge and no bothersome symptoms, you’re probably just fine, Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. But if your white discharge has an unusual-for-you consistency and comes with other symptoms, you should see your doctor. (And read what doctors have to say about treating yeast infections on your own before you make any moves to try that.)
If your discharge is yellow or green…
This might sound counterintuitive, but seeing yellow discharge doesn’t automatically mean something’s up. Mucus from the vagina and cervix sometimes turns yellow when it comes into contact with the air, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
If you’ve had instances of yellow discharge for as long as you can remember, cool. But yellow discharge could be a sign of an STI like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, tells SELF, especially when it comes with symptoms like itching and burning. These can all cause green discharge as well.
Bacterial vaginosis can also cause green discharge, according to ACOG, along with the aforementioned strong fishy odor and vaginal discomfort.
Bottom line: See your doctor if you’re suddenly experiencing yellow or green discharge, especially if you’re dealing with other symptoms.
If your discharge is gray…
Trichomoniasis is a common culprit here, according to Dr. Streicher. It can cause either the white or greenish vaginal discharge we’ve mentioned, or one that’s a yellow-gray color, ACOG says, so you might pick up on more of a gray hue.
Then there’s that overachiever bacterial vaginosis. Not only can it cause white or green discharge, this condition can lead to a dark or dull gray discharge that has a thin consistency, ACOG says.
If you know your discharge like the back of your hand and it suddenly turns gray, see your doctor for an evaluation.
If your discharge is brown, pink, or red…
This usually indicates that there’s some kind of bleeding going on, Dr. Minkin says, which isn’t immediately an emergency!
If this happens a little before or after your period, it’s likely due to either early bleeding or old blood that’s dribbling out. Either way, you shouldn’t automatically view it as a red flag, Dr. Streicher says, unless it’s new for you even though nothing else about your health has changed.
Another possible cause here is breakthrough bleeding, i.e., bleeding that happens between periods. There are tons of possible reasons behind this, like recently starting a new birth control or messing up the way you take your usual birth control.
This can also be due to health issues like cervical polyps (non-cancerous growths that can form on your cervix) or irritation from an infection, Dr. Streicher says. “A yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis—pretty much any infection can cause bleeding from the vaginal walls that will cause red or pink discharge,” she says.
In very rare situations, bloody discharge could be a sign of cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Abnormal bleeding is a common sign of cervical cancer—you might bleed after sex or spot between periods, and some of this blood can affect your discharge. Other possible cervical cancer symptoms include pain during sex. Definitely see your doctor if you have unexplained bloody discharge.
Your discharge doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
If you’re dealing with weird discharge, it’s important to look out for any other symptoms that might be a cause for concern, Dr. Schaffir says.
Also, keep in mind that certain variables may mess with the color of your discharge so that you think it looks off when it really doesn’t. Remember how air can make your discharge seem yellower? It can also make discharge seem darker, Dr. Schaffir says, adding that your discharge could even seem discolored because of the fabric of your underwear.
That said, the color of your discharge can still be a tip-off that something isn’t quite right down there, Dr. Minkin says. If you think something seems off, it’s best to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment or simply peace of mind.