Pretty much no one likes to talk about vaginal discharge and yet it can tell you a lot about your overall health – from normal cycles to major health issues, like STIs or other infections.
What is vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is fluid secreted from tiny glands in the vagina and cervix. This fluid leaks from the vagina each day to remove old cells and debris. It’s your body’s natural way to keep your vagina and reproductive tract clean and healthy.
The most important thing to remember is that everyone with a vagina has discharge! It’s totally normal and you’re probably going to notice it most during ovulation.
The amount of vaginal discharge can vary significantly from person to person. The colour, consistency, and amount can also change from day to day, depending on where a person is in their menstrual cycle:
Days 1–5. At the beginning of the cycle, discharge is usually red or bloody, as the body sheds the uterine lining.
Days 6–14. Following a period, a person may notice less vaginal discharge than usual. As the egg starts to develop and mature, the cervical mucus will become cloudy and white or yellow. It may feel sticky.
Days 14–25. A few days before ovulation, the mucus will be thin and slippery, similar to the consistency of egg whites. After ovulation, the mucus will go back to being cloudy, white or yellow, and possibly sticky or tacky.
Days 25–28. The cervical mucus will lighten, and a person will see less of it, before getting another period.
Meaning of the different colours and consistencies of discharge
White and creamy discharge
A few days or a week before your period, you may get a thicker, creamier discharge. The shade of white can extend to include cream or light yellow.
If a person has no other symptoms, white discharge is most likely a sign of healthy lubrication. However, if the white discharge has a consistency like cottage cheese or is accompanied by a strong odour, it can indicate an infection.
Thick, white and sticky discharge
When you’re not ovulating, your body will produce vaginal fluid that is thick and sticky. This vaginal discharge will act as a barrier to prevent sperm from getting through your cervix and into your uterus.
While it’s not foolproof, the body’s natural defences can also help prevent germs and bacteria from making their way into your cervix.
This can help you avoid infections in the days just after your period when your vagina produces less fluid than it does in other points of your cycle. The increased fluid helps wash out any bacteria or germs that could pose a risk to your vagina’s overall health and balance.
Thick, white, and lumpy discharge
Clumpy white discharge accompanied by an itchy feeling (internally and/or externally), usually indicates a yeast infection. Fortunately, most yeast infections are easily treated with over-the-counter medication or with a tablet that your doctor can prescribe.
If you’re prone to yeast infections, gynaecologists recommend avoiding heavily scented personal hygiene products, wearing cotton underwear and getting out of wet workout clothes and bathing suits immediately. At night, go commando in order to allow your intimate area to air out a bit.
Antibiotics are also a trigger because they kill off the good bacteria in your vagina that keeps yeast at bay. If you know you’re prone to them, mention it to your doctor when they prescribe an antibiotic. Sometimes they’ll also write you a prescription for an antifungal treatment as well.
Clear, watery discharge
Most ordinary vaginal discharge is clear or whitish. It may be slippery or have the consistency of egg whites.
Clear, elastic mucous resembling raw egg whites, is normal. Your discharge will look like this from the beginning of your cycle through ovulation—its stickiness helps draw sperm into your uterus. A person is likely to experience more clear, slippery discharge just before ovulation, during sexual arousal, and during pregnancy.
A slippery egg white-like discharge is usually a sign of ovulation. “This is nature’s way of letting you know that this is a great time to get busy if you want to get pregnant, and a great time to protect yourself if you don’t,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai and co-author of The Complete A to Z for Your V.
Herpes may be the cause: The blisters from herpes can cause some weeping from time to time, leading to a watery, semi-opaque, occasionally blood-tinged discharge. That occurs mainly if you have sores on the inside.
However, herpes has many other symptoms — including a lot of pain. So if you have it, you’re most likely going to know something is wrong without needing to see a watery discharge.
Yellow or greenish-yellow discharge
Green vaginal discharge is an abnormal vaginal secretion often caused by the body’s inflammatory response to an infection. That most often means trichomoniasis or gonorrhoea, both of which are STDs that require medical treatment.
Green discharge is often accompanied by a foul-smelling odour and other symptoms such as vaginal irritation, a burning sensation during urination and pain during sex.
If you notice green discharge you should speak to your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic immediately so you can get tested. The good news is that if you do have trichomoniasis it can be easily treated with antibiotics.
Graph by Letsgetchecked.com
Grey vaginal discharge is not healthy, and it can be a symptom of a common bacterial infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV).
BV usually causes other vaginal symptoms as well, including:
- Strong odour
- Redness around the vulva or vaginal opening
Anyone with grey discharge should promptly see a doctor. Following diagnosis, the doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics to treat the BV.
If you’re prone to BV, never douche. You can also help reduce the risk of developing it by using condoms, as sometimes sperm contributes to creating an imbalance in the vagina.
Pink discharge with traces of blood
Pink discharge most commonly occurs with spotting before a period. However, it can also be a sign of implantation bleeding in early pregnancy.
Some people experience a little bit of spotting after ovulation, which can also cause pink discharge. Discharge can also be pink after sexual intercourse if the sex has caused small tears or irritation in the vagina or cervix. But if you’re bleeding in between cycles or it looks slightly off, it could signify something more serious. Possible culprits could include but are not limited to, breakthrough bleeding on the pill, infections, polyps, ectopic pregnancy, and pregnancy.
Due to the range of possibilities being so wide, it’s important to see your doctor if you’re not sure.
If your discharge is heavier than usual
Your contraceptive may be at fault. The most common causes of an unusually heavy discharge are birth control pills and IUDs. As long as the discharge is clear or white and has no bad smell, this is normal and nothing to be concerned about.
If your discharge is lighter than usual
Really dry, atrophic changes in your discharge can signal perimenopause (the transition phase before menopause) or menopause. In addition to lighter volume, the discharge may also become thin, watery, and somewhat uncomfortable.
Moreover, the following can cause estrogen levels to drop, leading to little to no vaginal discharge:
- Medicines or hormones used in the treatment of breast cancer, endometriosis, fibroids or infertility
- Surgery to remove the ovaries
- Radiation treatment to the pelvic area
- Severe stress, depression or intense exercise
So when should I see a doctor?
If you’re worried about your discharge colour, amount, or other symptoms, your body is pretty good at letting you know if there is something wrong,
It will also send some specific cues like itching, pain, and burning during urination to let you know you should go see a doctor.
Make an appointment with your doctor anytime your discharge is accompanied by these symptoms or signs:
- Burning sensation while you pee
- Strong, foul odour
- Frothy texture
- Thick, cottage cheese texture
- Vaginal bleeding
- Grey in colour
- Bleeding that’s unrelated to your period
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is normal and it’s not something you should worry about. You should contact your doctor if you notice your vaginal discharge has changed from its typical consistency, colour, and smell, or if you have other symptoms in your vaginal area.
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