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 color, 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 vaginal discharge cycle, the body sheds its uterine lining and so the discharge is mostly found to be red or bloody,
Days 6–14. This stage is followed by the period when the egg starts to develop and mature. A person may notice that their vaginal discharge is lesser than usual. The cervical mucus will become cloudy and white or yellow and may feel sticky.
Days 14–25. This stage occurs just a few days before ovulation when the mucus will be found to be thin and slippery, similar to the consistency of egg whites. The mucus will then go back to being cloudy, white or yellow, and possibly sticky or tacky after the ovulation.
Days 25–28. During this stage, the cervical mucus lightens and will be seen less, until the beginning of another period.
When should I see a doctor?
According to NHS.uk, vaginal discharge is not usually anything to worry about if it:
- does not have a strong or unpleasant smell
- is clear or white
- is thick and sticky
- is slippery and wet
Make an appointment with a healthcare professional anytime your discharge is accompanied by these symptoms or signs:
- your vaginal discharge changes color, smell, or texture
- you produce more discharge than usual
- you feel itchy or sore
- you bleed between periods or after sex
- you get pain when peeing
- you get pain in the area between your tummy and thighs (pelvic pain)
As with many aspects of healthcare, your body is pretty good at letting you know when something is wrong, and will often let you know through a change in your discharge from what is usual for yourself.
Below we have covered a few of the common causes of different types of discharge. There is a lot of overlap, however, and so if there is a change in discharge that you are concerned about, particularly if it persists, it is important to get it checked out. This can be through your local GP or health center, or if you are concerned you may have an STI, then visiting a sexual health center is also an option.
Meanings of the different colors and consistencies of different types of vaginal discharge
Why is my discharge thick, white, and sticky
When you’re not ovulating, your body will produce vaginal fluid that is thicker 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 defenses 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.
Why is my discharge white and creamy
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, the white discharge could mean a sign of healthy lubrication.
However, if associated with other symptoms it could indicate an infection. For instance, if the white vaginal discharge is creamy or has a consistency like cottage cheese or is itching or sore it may represent a thrush infection. When accompanied by a strong odor, it can mean/indicate an infection.
Why is my discharge thick, white, and lumpy
Thick white lumpy discharge, like cottage cheese, accompanied by an itchy feeling (either internally 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, gynecologists recommend avoiding heavily scented personal hygiene products, wearing cotton underwear, and getting out of wet workout clothes and bathing suits immediately. At night, going commando can help in order to allow your intimate area to air out a bit. Reducing sugar in your diet, and consuming fermented foods and probiotics can also help with yeast overgrowth.
Antibiotics are also a trigger for thrush 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.
Why is my discharge green, yellow or frothy?
Dark yellow, yellow/ green, or green vaginal discharge is an abnormal vaginal secretion often caused by the body’s inflammatory response to an infection. This can indicate infections such as trichomoniasis or gonorrhea, both of which are STDs that require medical treatment.
This discharge is often accompanied by a foul-smelling odor and other symptoms such as vaginal irritation, a burning sensation during urination, and pain during sex.
If you notice yellow/green discharge you should speak to your doctor or visit a sexual health clinic so you can get tested. The good news is that if you do have gonorrhea or trichomoniasis it can be treated with antibiotics.
Graph by Letsgetchecked.com
Why is my discharge fishy-smelling
Fishy-smelling discharge is the most common symptom of an infection known as bacterial vaginosis (BV). This is often noticed particularly after sex. Whilst this infection is not usually associated with itching or soreness, and in around 50% of women causes no symptoms at all, it can cause discharge to become greyish-white, and thin, and watery.
BV is not a sexually transmitted infection, but being sexually active or having concurrent STIs increases the risk of developing BV.
Similarly, vaginal douching and the use of antiseptic, bubble baths, or shampoos in the bath can increase the chance of developing it. Whilst stopping these practices will usually lead to BV resolving by itself, it can also be treated by an antibiotic; it is worth seeing a healthcare professional if concerned about an STI, are pregnant, or have symptoms that are troubling.
Why do I have vaginal discharge with pelvic pain or bleeding
Discharge with pelvic pain or bleeding can indicate sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, and so it is important to seek advice from a healthcare professional such as a Sexual Health Clinic.
If your discharge is heavier than usual
With no other changes, 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. So always keep in mind that the normal vaginal discharge color is clear or white.
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
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is normal and it’s not something you should worry about. You should contact your healthcare professional if you notice your vaginal discharge has changed from its typical consistency, color, and smell, or if you have other symptoms in your vaginal area.
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