Decoding Vaginal Discharge: What’s normal and what’s not
Most women are unsure what’s considered normal when it comes to vaginal discharge, because we’re not taught what is and isn’t normal.
While we often shy away from or avoid talking about it, vaginal discharge is a normal, natural part of having a vagina, not to mention an important indicator of health.
So, let’s start the conversation about what’s normal and what’s not so you can use this as a guide to better understand your body and when to seek treatment. Plus, I’ll share 3 tips for preventing imbalance in your vaginal ecosystem.
What is vaginal fluid or discharge?
The vagina is a naturally self-cleaning organ, where a balance of bacteria, pH and moisture maintain a healthy vaginal environment. This balance is sensitive to changes, both within and outside of your body.
Vaginal discharge is a combination of vaginal cells, lactobacilli (bacteria normally present in the vagina) and fluid secreted from the vagina and cervix. It plays an important role in keeping the environment clean and healthy.
Is vaginal discharge normal?
Yes, most types of vaginal discharge are normal, and normal discharge varies depending on where you are within your cycle (and life stage). The amount of discharge also varies from woman to woman, with an average of 1 to 4mL (just less than 1 tsp) of vaginal fluid produced daily during reproductive years.
More discharge is produced when aroused, around ovulation and during pregnancy, and minimal discharge is seen in peri-menopause and menopause.
What is considered normal?
Dry, sticky, tacky
- Often at the beginning of the cycle (usually shortly after your period) and/or after ovulation
- Can be white, cloudy and can come out in small, sticky globs
- Can be seen leading up to ovulation
- Can be abundant and thick, similar to lotion
- Creamy discharge can also be a sign of pregnancy. If sexually active and unsure if pregnant, confirm with a pregnancy test
Clear, stretchy, slippery, wet
- Occurs just before and around ovulation
- Looks like a raw egg white
- Normal vaginal fluid can appear white, very light grey or slightly yellowish and paste-like when it dries on your underwear.
- Normal discharge can be odourless or have a smell, which is usually a mild scent and not unpleasant.
Vaginal discharge and birth control
- Oral hormonal birth control stops a woman’s own hormonal cycling. Thus, the typical patterns of vaginal discharge throughout your cycle won’t be seen if you take oral contraceptives.
- Some women may notice an increase in discharge with their IUD, since some IUDs work to thicken cervical discharge in order to prevent pregnancy.
When is vaginal discharge problematic?
Sudden, significant or persistent changes in consistency, colour, amount or smell could mean something else is going on, which may require further assessment and treatment.
Signs of abnormal or problematic vaginal discharge:
White, thick, clumpy discharge (like cottage cheese texture)
- If associated with itching, swelling, redness or burning with urination this could be a yeast infection.
- The discharge may be odourless or have a slightly off smell.
- You may wish to try an over-the-counter yeast treatment or speak with your ND for other options. If symptoms persist after trying an over-the-counter yeast treatment, or if you experience recurrent infections, see your health care provider.
Grey, thin discharge
- Along with a foul, pungent or fishy smell, this can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is a common vaginal infection caused by an overgrowth of bacteria normally found in the vagina.
- While BV may go away on its own, it can recur and can increase the risk for other vaginal infections and potentially pelvic inflammatory disease. It’s a good idea to see your health care provider for testing to confirm BV and for treatment options.
Yellowish, greenish or greyish discharge
- This is very likely a vaginal infection and can be an indication of trichomoniasis, chlamydia or gonorrhea.
- Occasionally, these types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may be without symptoms. Sometimes they can cause yellow or green discharge along with a foul smell, genital itching, pelvic pain, burning with urination and pain with sex.
- If you experience this type of discharge and associated symptoms, contact your health care provider promptly for testing and treatment.
- Can be noticed at the beginning or end of your period, which is common.
- After giving birth, discharge called lochia is common and may be brown. If there are any signs of infection (fever, nausea, vomiting) along with post-partum discharge, you should contact a medical professional right away.
What causes abnormal vaginal discharge?
Disruption to a healthy vaginal environment (pH, normal bacteria and moisture) can lead to changes in discharge.
Factors that can disrupt the balance of the vaginal ecosystem include:
- Douching (washing or cleansing the vagina)
- Scented menstrual products, scented laundry detergent
- Sexual activity, sex without condom use, new sexual partner, STIs
- Spermicide, lubricants, personal moisturizers
- Broad-spectrum antibiotics
- Life stages: menarche, pregnancy, menopause
- Hormonal changes, including use of hormonal birth control in some women
Top 3 tips for protecting your vaginal environment
- Synthetic fragrances and chemicals that may be used to douche, wipe or cleanse disrupt the vaginal ecosystem, increasing susceptibility to symptoms and infection.
- Remember that the vagina is designed to clean itself. There is a lot of marketing done to suggest otherwise, leaving many women feeling insecure and self-conscious about “down there”.
- Opt for underwear made of cotton or that includes a cotton gusset, since cotton is breathable. Organic cotton is ideal, if possible.
- Even better for breathability is sleeping without underwear!
Choose non-toxic, fragrance-free products
- For anything that is coming into close contact with your vulva and vagina, choose non-toxic, allergen-free and fragrance-free.
- This includes menstrual products (tampons, pads, menstrual cups), condoms, lubricants, personal moisturizer, sex toys and laundry detergent.
- Here’s a resource with some information on eco-friendly options.
The health of the entire body will affect the vaginal ecosystem. Our general health, including nutrition and lifestyle factors, will influence our hormonal cycles, vaginal pH, vaginal microflora and immune system and will determine susceptibility to vaginal ecosystem imbalance and infection.
If you’re experiencing vaginal discharge that has you confused or concerned or if you are getting frustrated with recurrent vaginal infections and aren’t sure what the next steps are, please reach out or schedule a free alignment call to see how I can help. I’d love to help you reduce the worry about what’s going on down there and get you back to feeling like yourself again.
Did you know Dr. Haarsma can complete standard vaginal tests for yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis? If you’d like to know more, send a message through the contact form or call the clinic. (Note, these tests are not covered by Alberta Health Care).
Hudson, T. (2008). Womens encyclopedia of natural medicine. New York: McGraw Hill.
Spence, D., & Melville, C. (2007, December 01). Vaginal discharge. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2099568/
Vaginal Secretion. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/vaginal-secretion