Is My Vaginal Discharge Normal? How To Tell When It's Healthy Vs. When It's A Sign Of Infection

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

If you have a vagina, you've probably noticed a few different kinds of fluid coming out of it. There's the lubrication that comes out when you get turned on, blood of varying colors during your period, and then the stuff that's just kind of there: vaginal discharge. We don't really talk about that stuff, leading to a lot of confusion about what's typical and what isn't.

In fact, vaginal discharge has an undeserved bad reputation. A few years ago, for the "Panty Challenge," women were sharing photos of their discharge-free underwear online as if it were proof of their health and cleanliness. In reality, though, vaginal discharge is healthy.

"Vaginal discharge is important for keeping the vagina clean, protects the vagina from infection, and helps indicate where you might be in your cycle," the scientific research team behind the period-tracking app Clue tells Bustle. "Vaginal discharge is the term used to describe the fluid that comes out of the vagina, which is different from menstrual blood or sexual arousal fluid. Vaginal discharge is made up of many parts, including cervical fluid and mucus, cells from the cervix and vagina, bacteria, and water. The amount and consistency of discharge can vary throughout the cycle, as well as throughout a person’s lifetime."

But what's the difference between "normal" vaginal discharge and the kind that might indicate an infection or another problem? Here's what you should know.

What's Typical?

"This is the deal when it comes to vaginal discharge: If it doesn’t itch, burn, or smell bad, it’s normal," Astroglide's resident OB/GYN Angela Jones tells Bustle. "The vagina is an amazing organ; it’s a self-cleaning oven; i.e., it handles its own maintenance. Vaginal discharge can be thick, it can be thin, it can be sticky… depends on where you are in your cycle. If your discharge itches, burns, or smells bad, you likely have an infection that needs to be checked out by your OB/GYN."

What's most important is to figure out what's normal for you so that you can tell when something's up, according to Clue's research team. However, this will vary throughout your cycle.

What Color Should It Be?

During your follicular phase (soon after your period, before ovulation), your discharge will be creamy, cloudy, and whitish, says Clue's research team. During ovulation, you'll have more vaginal discharge than usual to make your body more hospitable for sperm. Your discharge will also be clearer at this time. Then, it'll become whitish again.

One sign that your vaginal discharge is off is that it's no longer white or clear. "If the color of your discharge changes to grayish, greenish, yellowish or brownish, it could be an indicator that something is off," says Clue's research team. "But again, it is important that you know what the norm is for you."

How Should It Smell?

Generally, the smell of your vaginal discharge should be mild, says Clue's research team. Sometimes, though, it might have a smell just because it's gotten mixed with urine or menstrual blood.

Smells that could be cause for concern include fishy, foul, or metallic ones, Clue's team adds. This could point toward an infection like trichomonas vaginalis. You may not be able to catch a yeast infection by the smell, though, since they usually don't have a scent.

How Should It Feel?

Like the color, the texture of your vaginal discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle, says Clue's research team. It'll be drier and stickier right after your period, then it'll get creamier during the follicular phase, stretchy and wet during ovulation, then dry and sticky again afterward.

"When it comes to knowing that something is off, you should first know what the normal texture is for you," Clue's research team says. "If your fluid becomes unusually thinner, or thicker and more textured, it may be an indication that something isn’t quite right."

No matter what your vaginal discharge looks, feels, or smells like, it's nothing to be ashamed of — because either it's completely healthy, or it's giving you valuable information.