Checking out your discharge is kind of like reading your vagina’s tea leaves. Vaginal discharge can sometimes clue you into what’s up down there, including if you have any potential health problems that should send you straight to the ob/gyn. But how much of the stuff is it normal to see on any given day? There’s no across-the-board easy answer here, but the amount of your discharge can still hint at a few things about your health.
Discharge is your body’s pretty genius way of keeping your vagina clean and lubricated, so it’s normal to have at least some of it.
Vaginal discharge might seem mysterious, but it’s actually just a mixture of cells and fluid from your vagina and mucus from your cervix (the low, narrow portion of your uterus), Maura Quinlan, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. It has way more of a purpose than just hanging out in your underwear; discharge is your vagina’s way of cleaning itself, staying moisturized, and shielding itself from infection and irritation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
No set amount of discharge is considered “normal” for everyone. It’s more about learning how much is normal for you.
Don’t worry if it seems like you have way more or less vaginal discharge than the next person. “I tell my patients that discharge is like sweat—some people don’t sweat very much, and some sweat a lot,” Dr. Quinlan says.
It’s not like doctors can say you should have precisely one teaspoon of discharge every day, and any more or less means you need to get to a vagina doctor ASAP. “You just want to keep tabs on what’s normal for you,” Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. And your definition of normal discharge may change throughout the month.
The amount of discharge you churn out can vary during different parts of your menstrual cycle.
So, your menstrual cycle starts with your period, and the discharge situation is no mystery there: Blood will likely overwhelm any regular discharge you would see, although you might experience brown discharge before or after your period when you’re bleeding just a trickle.
After your period wraps up, you might not have a ton of discharge because you’re not producing much cervical mucus, according to the Mayo Clinic. That doesn’t mean your body isn’t making any discharge—remember, some is still coming from your vaginal tissue itself—it may just be less than you see at other times.
As your cycle progresses and your body starts preparing for ovulation, your estrogen levels increase, and you might notice more discharge, which can be white, yellow, or cloudy-looking, and may feel sticky. Your estrogen levels continue to rise as you get closer to ovulation, and your discharge may become really thin and slippery because you’re expelling more cervical mucus. “It can look a lot like egg whites,” Dr. Schaffir says. This mucus is there to help sperm travel up to your cervix so it’s easier for you to get pregnant, Dr. Quinlan explains.
If you don’t get pregnant after you release an egg during ovulation, your estrogen levels peter out, so you go back to producing less cervical mucus. Your discharge may become thicker and cloudier again, then you may have a few dry days. Once your period arrives, the cycle starts fresh.
Being on birth control (especially the kind that contains estrogen) can make it less likely that your discharge will fluctuate throughout the month.
A lot of the way your discharge looks hinges on where you are in the ovulatory process. So, if you’re taking estrogen-containing birth control, which inhibits ovulation, you may not see changes in your discharge throughout the month, Dr. Schaffir says.
Even if your hormonal birth control doesn’t contain estrogen, it can still influence your discharge due to its progestin. The progestin found in contraceptive methods like combined hormonal birth control, the mini-pill, hormonal IUDs, and the shot makes your cervical mucus thicker to slow sperm’s movement, so you might notice your discharge isn’t quite as slippery, Dr. Schaffir says. However, progestin-only methods don’t reliably suppress ovulation, so you still may have more variety during your cycle than you would if you used birth control with estrogen.
Your amount of discharge can increase during pregnancy, FYI.
If you get pregnant, your levels of estrogen keep rising instead of dropping to induce your period. Because of that heightened estrogen, you might notice that your discharge is wetter and slipperier throughout pregnancy, Dr. Schaffir says.
Pregnancy also increases your blood volume, and that could cause your body to make more discharge than usual, Dr. Schaffir explains.
So, yeah, your discharge levels might change throughout the month, depending on certain factors. But if you ever start producing way more of it for no apparent reason, that’s something to bring up to your doctor.
An increase in how much discharge you’re producing can be a tip-off that your vaginal health is compromised, according to the Mayo Clinic. Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis can all cause increased vaginal discharge. So can bacterial vaginosis, which is when the “bad” bacteria in your vagina overwhelm the “good” bacteria, and yeast infections, which happen when too much yeast is throwing a party in there.
Though these vaginal health issues can all cause increased discharge, the discharge may look different depending on what you’re dealing with. Here’s a quick guide to keep in mind:
- Bacterial vaginosis: thin discharge that appears gray, green, or white and possibly smells fishy
- Chlamydia: green, white, or yellow discharge that might smell foul
- Gonorrhea: white or yellow discharge
- Trichomoniasis: gray, green, white, or yellow discharge that may smell fishy
- Yeast infection: thick, white, cottage cheese-esque discharge
Having one of these conditions doesn’t mean you’ll experience exactly these symptoms—in fact, sometimes you won’t have any signs that something is off with your vagina. And if you do experience symptoms of one of these conditions, it may come with non-discharge signs as well, like burning during urination or pain during sex. If you’re experiencing vaginal weirdness beyond discharge, take note of it and see your doctor.
Also, if your discharge ever looks bloody and you don’t think it’s due to your period, that’s another sign to seek medical help. This could indicate an issue like cervical polyps (typically benign growths that hang down from your cervix), or simply breakthrough bleeding thanks to your birth control, Dr. Schaffir says. But in rare cases, it can be a symptom of cervical cancer, so it’s important to get it checked out.
Otherwise, feel free to keep tabs on your discharge with a spirit of curiosity, not with a worry that it shouldn’t be there at all. “It’s like a person on a sunny day saying, ‘I’m worried that I’m sweating,’” Dr. Quinlan says. “It’s normal.”