Understanding how your body works is a key step in loving it; however, conversations on vaginal discharge still remain a sticky, scary subject. As a result, people with vaginas are stuck wondering whether the ooze on their underwear is normal or not (note: it’s usually nothing to worry about). Discharge is something that everyone with a vagina experiences and is uniquely important to vaginal health. As a healthcare provider, I want us to learn to embrace the importance of vaginal discharge rather than be ashamed of it.
What is vaginal discharge?
While vaginal discharge may seem like it is only a nuisance, it does serve an important purpose. Discharge is produced by the skin cells that line the vagina, changing with normal hormonal fluctuations. Its primary purpose is to help keep the vagina clean, provide lubrication and protect the vagina from infections. So, while it may seem like an annoyance, it’s something that everyone with a vagina needs and experiences.
How and why does it change throughout the month?
You may have noticed that your vaginal discharge isn’t the same day after day, particularly if you aren’t using a birth control method with hormones. So when and how does it change? Let’s break it down.
During your period: You may notice blood-tinged discharge at the beginning or end of your cycle. Sometimes, this can be dark brown. This color is caused by oxygen exposure. If the blood is old, or if the flow is light, there is a higher chance it will come in contact with oxygen. This oxidation will cause blood to turn that dark brown color.
Immediately after your period: Immediately following your period, discharge tends to be more thick and sticky. It may also be more white or opaque in color.
Ovulation: During ovulation, vaginal discharge becomes more clear, slippery and water-like. Some people compare its consistency and appearance to egg whites. This helps to facilitate sperm travel.
After ovulation: Following the ovulatory window, discharge will return to its prior thicker, stickier consistency. Again, discharge may be more yellow, white or opaque during this time.
If you’re using hormonal birth control, depending on the type, your discharge may stay relatively consistent throughout the month. Birth control containing estrogen may increase vaginal discharge. Meanwhile, birth control containing progesterone may thicken discharge, making the vaginal environment less sperm-friendly.
How do I know if my discharge is normal?
While every person’s discharge is different, there are some general guidelines that healthcare providers follow to determine whether or not there is cause for concern. Every person will have a different amount of daily discharge; it can vary anywhere between ½ to 1 teaspoon a day. Amount of discharge can also change throughout the menstrual cycle and will generally increase during pregnancy. While vaginal discharge is not meant to smell like flowers, it should be fairly odorless. Healthy discharge can vary in color between yellow, white, opaque and clear.
When should I seek help?
Now that you know what’s considered normal, it’s time to get clear on what’s not-so-normal. Concerning abnormalities include a foul or abnormally strong odor, a difference in color (such as green), vaginal irritation (such as itching or burning) or discharge that is associated with any additional symptoms (e.g. difficulty with urination, pain with sex or pelvic pain). Should any of these problems occur, it’s best to seek evaluation and medical advice from your healthcare provider.