In our series, “What’s Up, Down There,” we’re covering important vaginal health topics you might not have learned in health class. In this issue, we’re delving into the topic of vaginal discharge. We’re exploring why we have different kinds of vaginal discharge, including ranges in color, consistency, and odors, and uncovering what’s normal, and what’s not. While you may not think to pay much attention to discharge, it could help in revealing certain clues about your health. Hint: your discharge could tell you when you’re ovulating as well as point to signs of infection.
What Is Vaginal Discharge?
Having vaginal discharge is not only normal, but it’s healthy, too! The vagina typically secretes a white or clear-ish fluid every day, known as discharge. Discharge is a mix of cells, mucus, and fluids from inside the vagina and cervix.
What Purpose Does Vaginal Discharge Serve?
Vaginal discharge plays several important roles in a woman’s health. It aids in cleaning, providing lubrication and moisturization, and helping to prevent vaginal infections.
Discharge also plays a role in facilitating pregnancy. Rising estrogen levels help to create a certain type of cervical mucus that is more watery and lower acidity, creating a friendly nourishing environment for the sperm. During ovulation, discharge (aka cervical fluid) can help to serve as a guide for the sperm, helping them swim more easily through the cervix up to the uterus, where they are fertilized with the egg. This is when you’ll experience a slippery, stretchy type of discharge. You are most fertile when your cervical mucus resembles a raw egg-white texture. After ovulation, discharge becomes drier and thicker, making it more difficult for sperm to travel. That’s why, if you’re trying to conceive, keeping an eye on your changes in discharge could help you tell if you are ovulating.
What Do Different Types of Discharge Mean?
Discharge can come in many colors, consistency, and odors. The amount of discharge you have depends on different factors from hormone levels around our menstrual cycle to sexual activity. A “normal” discharge will usually be white or clear-ish in color. Though what’s normal can vary from woman to woman. It’s important to keep track of your typical color and smell, so you can notice if something is off. Let’s explore the range of abnormal discharge colors and what they mean.
- Red or Brown: If you’re experiencing red or brown discharge outside of your period, this could be a sign of an irregular period or spotting. Irregular periods or spotting could be tied to other concerns like fibroids, ovarian cysts, polyps, or even certain conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or even thyroid disease. It’s important to have any irregular spotting evaluated by your provider.
- Grey and Cloudy: If grey and cloudy discharge also has a “fishy” smell, you likely have a bacterial infection which could be bacterial vaginosis (BV), a common condition that affects one in three women. BV is caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in your vagina.
- Yellow or Green: Yellow or green discharge is almost always a sign of a bacterial infection or sexually transmitted disease. STDs that can present with a discolored discharge include trichomoniasis, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. This type of discharge is typically accompanied by a foul-smelling odor. You may also experience itching or burning in your vulva and vagina.
- White and Lumpy: Often referred to as a “cottage cheese” type appearance, a white and lumpy discharge could indicate a yeast infection. Yeast infections are caused when there is any unbalance in your vaginal pH. Yeast infections can be caused by taking antibiotics, unprotected sex, hormonal changes during your period, or even menopause. These infections are also typically coupled with itching and burning around the vulva and vagina.
What Should I Do If I Notice A Change In My Vaginal Discharge?
If you’re experiencing any of the “abnormal” changes above, it’s best to contact your Axia Women’s Health provider. Again, common signs of abnormal discharge include:
- a change in odor, especially an unpleasant odor
- a change in color, especially greenish, grayish, or anything looking like pus
- a change in texture, such as foamy or looking like cottage cheese
- vaginal itching, burning, swelling, or redness
- vaginal bleeding or spotting that is not a menstrual period
In most cases, vaginal infections such as BV and yeast, or STIs including chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or gonorrhea can be treated with oral medications. Of course, there are always steps you can take to help prevent infection including avoiding douching, practicing safe sex through barrier protection methods, and maintaining your overall hygiene by cleansing regularly with a non-scented soap.
The good news here: You know your body best! By keeping track of what “normal” discharge looks like for you, you can be more self-aware and know when to sense if something is off and when to contact your provider.
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