Vaginal Discharge: What's Normal and How it Changes?
Vaginal discharge is a completely normal, natural bodily function that plays a pivotal role in maintaining the vaginal ecosystem. It helps keep the vagina moist, clean and free from infection.
Vaginal discharge can be seen in the gusset of underwear or on toilet paper after having a wee. It changes throughout the month in line with the menstrual cycle and the amount, colour and consistency and can vary from person to person. It's useful to recognise what's normal for you and identify variations that may identify any potential issues so you know when to seek medical advice.
Normal vaginal discharge can be either thin, sticky and have an elastic-like constancy or it may be thick and gooey. Here's how it changes throughout the month.
The Menstrual Cycle and Vaginal Discharge
The menstrual cycle consists of four key phases: the menstrual phase, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. Each phase is characterised by hormonal changes that influence the vaginal environment, leading to distinct changes in vaginal discharge.
- Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5): The menstrual phase marks the shedding of the uterine lining, leading to menstrual bleeding. Menstruation is a combination of blood and cervical mucus, appearing darker in colour and thicker in consistency.
- Follicular Phase (Days 6-13): Following the menstrual phase, the follicular phase is characterised by rising levels of estrogen, which stimulate the growth of ovarian follicles. Vaginal discharge during this phase tends to be relatively minimal and may appear creamy or white in colour. The discharge is usually thicker and less noticeable compared to other phases.
- Ovulation (Around Day 14): Ovulation is the release of an egg from an ovarian follicle. This phase is marked by an increase in cervical mucus production, which becomes more transparent, stretchy and slippery, resembling the consistency of egg whites. This type of discharge facilitates sperm movement and is often referred to as "fertile mucus." It is a sign of heightened fertility and typically lasts for a few days.
- Luteal Phase (Days 15-28): After ovulation, the luteal phase is characterised by the release of progesterone. Vaginal discharge during this phase may become thicker and more opaque. Some individuals might experience less noticeable discharge during this phase, while others might continue to notice a moderate amount.
Image: How vaginal discharges over a month
Arousal fluid is another type of fluid produced by glands around the vagina when a person is sexually aroused. It's not quite the same as vaginal discharge as it is only produced in response to sexual stimulation. It's both a physiological and psychological response to being aroused and it lubricates the vagina for the possibility of intercourse. Arousal fluid is clear, moist, and slippery and can make a person feel "wet". The closer to ovulation, the more arousal fluid is likely to be produced due to surging levels of estrogen levels.
Recognising Normal Discharge vs. Abnormal Symptoms
Understanding what constitutes normal and healthy vaginal discharge for you will help detect any potential issues.
While variations exist from person to person and at different stages of the cycle, healthy discharge generally has the following characteristics:
- Colour: Healthy discharge can range from clear to white. It may also have a slightly yellowish tinge, particularly during the luteal phase.
- Consistency: Normal discharge can vary in consistency throughout the menstrual cycle. It might be thin and watery around ovulation and thicker at other times.
- Odour: Healthy discharge usually does not have a strong or foul odour. It might have a mild, slightly musky scent.
- Volume: The amount of discharge can vary from person to person, but it is usually higher around ovulation.
When to Seek Medical Advice
While normal vaginal discharge is a sign of a well-functioning reproductive system, certain changes or symptoms may indicate an underlying issue that requires medical attention.
If you notice any of the following changes, it's advisable to consult a healthcare professional:
- Change in Colour or Odour: If the discharge becomes green or grey, or has an unpleasant odour, it might indicate an infection.
- Unusual Consistency: Discharge that becomes unusually thick, clumpy like cottage cheese, or accompanied by itching may indicate a yeast infection.
- Pain or Discomfort: If you experience pain, itching, burning, or discomfort along with abnormal discharge, it could be a sign of an infection or other medical issue.
- Bleeding Between Periods: If you notice spotting or bleeding between periods, it's essential to consult a doctor, as it could be indicative of various underlying conditions.
- Increased Discharge: While some increase in discharge is normal around ovulation, a sudden and significant increase could indicate an infection.
Keeping your Vagina Healthy
To maintain optimal vaginal health, consider the following tips:
- Practice Good Hygiene: Gently wash the external genital area with mild, fragrance-free soap and water. Avoid douching, as it can disrupt the natural vaginal pH balance.
- Stay Hydrated: Drinking an adequate amount of water helps maintain overall bodily hydration, which can reflect the quality of vaginal discharge.
- Wear Breathable Clothing: Choose cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothing to allow proper air circulation and reduce moisture buildup.
- Practice Safe Sexual: Use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and maintain vaginal health.
- Consult a Healthcare Professional: If you experience any abnormal symptoms or are unsure about the changes in your vaginal discharge, consult a doctor. A good Doctor will treat you with respect and without judgement. It can help to keep a record of your symptom, when they occurred and let them know if you have had any changes in your life which may include changes in your diet or lifestyle. See our other tips on How to Talk to a Doctor about Vaginal Concerns.
Each person's body is unique, and what might be normal for one might not be for another. Self-awareness and open communication with healthcare professionals is the best approach to staying healthy.
- NHS. (2021). Vaginal Discharge. [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginal-discharge/]
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2019). Vaginal Health. [https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/vaginal-health]
- Mayo Clinic. (2020). Vaginal Discharge: What's Normal, What's Not. [https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050825]
Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.