Vaginal discharge and its meaning—EXPLAINED!

Vaginal discharge and its meaning—EXPLAINED!
The basic function of your vagina, besides sexual pleasure, is to provide a clean, functional route from the outside of your body to your uterus and the rest of your internal reproductive system. The natural acid PH of the vagina acts to prevent infections. The acidic nature of your vagina is caused by natural, bacteria produced by your body called lactobacilli. This is the same bacteria found in yogurt culture and that is why we always hear about women drinking or douching with yogurt to help prevent or cure an infection. Unfortunately, it doesn't work well in the vagina but can help as a 'probiotic' in the intestinal tract. When your vagina is healthy, the vagina keeps itself clean. We always joke that it is like a self-cleaning oven; it stays in a healthy state by producing the secretions of normal vaginal discharge.

SEE Questions about Your Vagina You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask—Answered!

However, surprisingly, the vagina can tell you a lot about your health — especially with discharge, which can signify everything from normal cycles to major health issues.

What is Vaginal Discharge?


The vaginal discharge comes from glands inside your vagina and cervix. These glands produce small amounts of fluid also known as vaginal secretions. The fluid flows out of the vagina each day, cleansing old cells that have lined the vagina. This is a completely natural process—it’s your body’s way of keeping your vagina healthy and clean.

The discharge varies from woman to woman. Some women have discharge every day, while others experience it less frequently. Normal vaginal discharge is usually clear or milky and may have a subtle scent that is not unpleasant or foul-smelling. It’s also important to know that vaginal discharge changes over the course of a woman’s menstrual cycle. These changes in color and thickness are associated with ovulation and are natural. But outside of normal changes associated with your cycle, other changes may not be normal. Your discharge may indicate an imbalance of healthy bacteria in your vagina, which can be a sign that all is not well.

Stages of vaginal discharge


Vaginal discharge is a creature of habit that follows a fairly predictable pattern. In fact, cyclical changes in the way your discharge looks and feels is a great way to determine which phase of the menstrual cycle you’re in.

Note: If you take hormonal contraception, you’re less likely to notice a change in your discharge. This is because the levels in your hormones (ie. estrogen and progesterone) are more constant compared to people not taking hormonal contraception.

Here is how your vaginal discharge changes throughout each phase of the menstrual cycle, and how to spot healthy vs. unhealthy discharge.
 

Discharge during menstruation


During the menstrual phase (aka your period), the blood flow mixes with your mucus. You probably won’t notice any discharge. In the following days, the amount of vaginal discharge you produce is very little – and might even be completely absent.

If it’s brown, don’t worry: That’s usually from your uterus expelling old, leftover blood from your period.
 

Discharge before ovulation


In the days leading up to ovulation (during the follicular phase), estrogen levels start to rise and your cervix starts producing more mucus. Many people experience milky white discharge at this stage: thick and creamy consistency, and white or cloudy in color.

While you’re still outside of your fertile window, your vaginal mucus is intentionally thick to intercept any sperm trying to reach your uterus.

Some tenacious swimmers may still make it through and – since sperm can live in your body for up to five days – you should probably use a condom or other contraceptive method (unless you’re trying to conceive).
 

Discharge during ovulation 


Ovulation is when you produce the most discharge. Don’t be alarmed if you feel “wetter” than usual. Estrogen levels typically peak one to two days before ovulation, so vaginal discharge will resemble raw egg whites: clear, slippery, and stretchy.

If your discharge can be stretched between your index finger and thumb, you’re ovulating! It’s a telltale sign that there’s an egg ready to be fertilized, and the watery consistency of your cervical mucus is intended to facilitate sperm reaching an egg.

Cervical mucus provides sperm a more hospitable home than the vagina’s usual acidic environment, allowing these swimmers to survive for longer periods.
 

Discharge during the luteal phase


Right after ovulation, you may notice a fairly dramatic change in the quantity and texture of your discharge. Luteal discharge might feel sticky, dry, or maybe completely absent.

Progesterone peaks to support a potential pregnancy, inhibiting the secretion of cervical mucus and acting as a barrier to stop sperm from entering the upper reproductive tract.

Thicker mucus also prevents bacteria, fungi, and infections from reaching the uterus while the fertilized egg is implanting (and your immune system function is dampened).

Vaginal discharge and its meaning



Here are a few of the most common vaginal discharges, explained. I hope the next time you have a vaginal discharge, this information will help you. Always ask your doctor if something doesn't look right to you.

If it's clear...

It's usually a sign of ovulation — and it probably comes like clockwork. "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, an associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai and co-author of V is for Vagina. Bonus: It often comes with a boost to your libido since it's your most fertile time of the month.

READ ALSO, UNDERWEAR — COMMANDMENTS EVERY WOMAN MUST OBEY

If it's creamy...

Don't fret. A few days or a week before your period, you may get a heavier, creamier discharge. It's different for different women, explains Dweck, but usually no cause for concern.

If it has traces of blood...

You may just be getting ready for your period. But if you're bleeding in between 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, Dweck says. Bottom line: Because the range of possibilities is so wide, it's important to see your doctor if you're not sure.

READ ALSO: What is a pantyliner? Why use a pantyliner? When is the time to use a pantyliner?

If it's lumpy and white...

This is very likely a sign of a yeast infection. "Typically it's thick, white, and causes lots of itching that can be both internal and external," Dweck says. Fortunately, most yeast infections are easily treated with over-the-counter medication, such as Monistat, or a tablet that your doctor can prescribe. For women prone to yeast infections, Dweck recommends avoiding heavily-scented personal hygiene products as well as getting out of wet workout clothes and bathing suits immediately. (Hot yoga devotees, we're looking at you.) Another tip: Go commando, especially at night. "This allows the entire area to air out a bit," Dweck explains.

If it's yellow or greenish-yellow...

That most often means trichomoniasis or gonorrhea, both of which are STDs that require medical treatment. (If it's greenish but frothy it might be something else, but you should still see your doctor.) Also keep in mind that chlamydia can cause a discharge like this, but frequently it has no symptoms at all — so just because you don't have a discharge doesn't mean you don't have it, Dweck explains.

If it's greenish-gray and frothy (and smells like fish)...

You've likely got bacterial vaginosis, or BV, which is a common but uncomfortable infection (not an STD) caused by an imbalance of the normal flora, the microorganisms in the vagina. It can be a bit alarming, but the good news is that this is usually treated with a simple antibiotic or antibacterial gel from your doctor. If you're prone to BV, never douche. And abstaining from sex can help lower your risk, reports Lama Tolaymat, MD, MPH, FACOG — but is certainly not mandatory! Just keep your risk at bay by using condoms, as sometimes sperm contributes to creating an imbalance in the vagina.

SEE: How to Handle Fishy Odor That Won't Wash Away.

If it's watery...

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 that it's painful," says Dweck. "So if you have it, you're most likely going to know something is wrong without needing to see a watery discharge."

SEE: How to Deal With Watery Discharge That Comes Out Minutes After Sex.

If it's 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, confirms Tolaymat. Occasionally, a heavier discharge results from an allergic reaction or sensitivity to chemicals. (Think: Sitting in a chemical-laden hot tub or trying a new body wash.) Dweck explains this reaction isn't dangerous, but women should limit their exposure to the offending chemical in the future to avoid irritation.

If it's lighter than usual...

You may be approaching "the change of life." 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, Dweck notes. Usually, perimenopause doesn't begin until your 40s, but it can start in your 30s or even earlier.

READ ALSO: What women need to know about nipple discharge? Find out!

Below Are Some of the Instances When Vaginal Discharge Is Normal

 

Dry Discharge

Dry discharge isn't produced during ovulation and is a dry, thick, and almost pasty substance that also causes dryness in the vaginal area. This happens during the days before and after your period, and it serves the function within the body of a barrier between sperm and the uterus. This is why there are those few days every month where you are at a lower risk of pregnancy with unprotected sex.

Egg White-Like Discharge

When your body is getting ready to ovulate, an egg white-like mucus that is slippery starts to get produced and can be discharged vaginally. Since this discharge happens right before ovulation is starting, you can expect to experience an increase in this about two weeks before your next period. The purpose of this slippery fluid is to help sperm negotiate tracks to the uterus.

Lubricating Discharge

Lubricating discharge accompanies ovulation, and rather than having flexible properties, this discharge is meant to lubricate the area. Sometimes this is referred to as P-Type, because it is full of potassium, and typically it is at its heaviest when you are at your most fertile, or right as your egg is being released.

Watery Discharge

Watery discharge, which is often clear, is totally normal during a number of your menstrual cycle stages and is often heavier after periods of exercise.

Brown Discharge

Brown discharge can be common right after a period, as the body flushes out any leftover remnants from the vagina.

What changes in my discharge may be signs of a problem?


Some of the first signs of a problem that could be pointing to abnormal vaginal discharge are usually color or irregular bleeding episodes. Most women will notice a dark yellow or greenish color, or darkish brown, and some will notice a change in consistency and amount. These changes may show an abundance of thick or watery-frothy discharge, or thick, sticky, cottage cheese-like, odorous discharge.

Recommended Read: Can Foods Affect the Smell and Taste of Vaginal Discharge? Find Out!

With vaginal infections, the discharge becomes constant and can cause discomfort, itching, burning, and rashes or bumps on the inner and outer areas of the genital and anal region. Some infections can get into the urinary tract and cause burning during urination, or the burning can be caused by external irritation around the urethra.

Some of these infections can become very serious if left untreated and can progress further up into the uterus and fallopian tubes causing infertility. When this happens women can have severe pain, fevers, and form pelvic abscesses.

READ ALSO: A vagina is never odor-free but what is a 'normal' smell for a vagina? Find out!

When to See Your Healthcare Professional


Since every woman is different, it’s a good idea to pay attention to your vaginal discharge. You will learn to recognize what is normal for you, and what may be signaling a problem—especially if you experience other symptoms at the same time, like pain, itching, and irritation. Only you know your body. If you have a vaginal discharge that doesn’t seem normal for you (with or without other symptoms), talk to your healthcare professional.
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