The whys and the whats around vaginal discharge with Dr Michelle Frank.
I clearly remember being a young girl and suddenly having this white-like gooey stuff show up in my underwear. I knew it wasn’t my period, but I also noticed it started to change throughout the month, sometimes being sticky or tacky to clearer and more liquidy. Now that I am older, and a lot more educated on the subject, I’ve learned that while vaginal discharge can be a frustrating affair, it’s also an important health indicator.
With the random changes in flow to the increase during some stages of your menstrual cycle, vaginal discharge can be confusing to both predict and manage. We’re here to talk about what it is and what its different textures are telling you about your body.
What is vaginal discharge made of?
Simply put, vaginal discharge is the fluid coming out of the vagina on days that are not period days on your menstrual calendar.
Vaginal discharge can consist of:
- Dead vaginal and cervical cells
- Mucus from cervical glands
- Lubrication fluid from phases of arousal (i.e. “Getting wet” when excited)
- Semen from recent intercourse
- Secretions from vaginal glands
This of course changes from time to time, with the discharge containing a few of the components listed above. However, you may have noticed that your discharge changes throughout the month. These distinct changes in consistency are attributed to the changes in the mucus secretion coming from your cervix. Put more simply, it is a sign that you are at a different stage in your menstrual cycle. If you want to know more about the different stages throughout the month, you can read our article on why we have periods.
Is vaginal discharge important?
Yes. However, in some cultures, vaginal discharge is viewed as an ‘abnormal body process’ (which it definitely isn’t). Why is vaginal discharge also tossed into the taboo bucket alongside periods and nipples? It could be because of the limited information, or even conversation, surrounding the topic.
So for the people in the back: Having vaginal discharge in general, and having it change throughout the month, is a completely normal process.
Is the vagina self-cleaning?
Yes, your vagina is a self-cleaning machine and your discharge is one of the ways your vagina gets rid of dead cells and bacteria. This is a healthy bodily response. This means douching or steaming your vagina is unnecessary. If anything these products and treatments pushed on us to purchase can disturb the healthy ecosystem present within your vagina. Keeping your vagina and vulva clean is easy to do and you do not need to purchase things to do it.
The primary component of the vaginal discharge that changes throughout the menstrual cycle is the ‘cervical mucus’. This change either assists or hinders the passage of sperm during various phases of the cycle. Cervical mucus also houses sperm providing them with essential nutrients and protecting them from the acidic environment of the vagina during ovulatory phases.
Stress, changes in diet, and even intense workouts can increase discharge momentarily. However, the consistency of normal vaginal discharge changes with the menstrual cycle, primarily due to hormone fluctuations. There can sometimes be a slight odor alongside visual and texture changes, but this is normal and also unique to every menstruator.
Is There Vaginal Discharge Before Menstruation Begins?
Returning to my short story from above, for young menstruators, vaginal discharge may start about six months to a year before regular menstrual cycles begin.
The first signs of puberty, pubic hair, and breast growth, might already be underway. When the vaginal discharge starts, your body is letting you know that there are changes in the vaginal environment along with changes in the bacterial ecosystem. Hormones are the ones championing these changes.
What does discharge look like?
Most commonly, vaginal discharge is described as thin and whitish.
For the first few months to the first year, specific changes in your discharge might be difficult to keep track of. Once you are closer to your first menstrual period, your vaginal discharge will have more typical and consistent cyclical changes (as described below).
This will be an indication that your hormones are preparing for your first period.
Why does my discharge change throughout the month?
For menstruators, your vaginal discharge changes are an indicator of each phase of your menstrual cycle.
Getting comfortable with the way your discharge feels and looks during the different phases can help to quickly understand if anything is out of your normal. And it’s important to say ‘your normal’ because each body is different.
During your period, blood and the lining of your endometrium break away from the uterine walls. While period blood is consistent in color for most menstruators, there can be fluctuations, which we will discuss in the next section of this article.
Immediately after your period, there can be light red blood or spotting for a day or two after your period ends. This slowly transitions to dry, or the absence of any discharge for the phase leading up to ovulation.
In the latter half of the follicular phase, which is a few days before ovulation, the estrogen levels begin to rise. This causes the vaginal discharge to increase along with a change in the consistency of the cervical mucus. You will begin to observe a thick and creamy discharge. For menstruators, this can transition to a creamier discharge which is white, or yellow when dry closer to ovulation. Discharge in this phase can start around day 10 of the menstrual cycle.
During ovulation, when estrogen has peaked, vaginal discharge increases. The discharge transitions to a sticky, stretchy, and slippery egg white consistency. You should be able to stretch this type of discharge between your thumb and index finger. It is an indication that you are probably ovulating, however, it is not a sure sign.
During ovulation, you might also observe spotting for a day or two. The release of the egg causes slight contraction which releases a few drops of blood. You might also experience light pelvic cramping as well.
From the excess discharge around ovulation, there can be an almost immediate change to a sticky, dry, or absent phase of discharge. Progesterone dominating the luteal phase limits cervical mucus production. This change limits sperm entry. The thicker cervical mucus also limits the passage of pathogens to the uterus to protect the implanted egg in case fertilization has taken place.
Image Credit @jasmin_caviezel
Since every menstruator’s body is unique, it is possible that this pattern does not describe your body or each month of your cycle. Changes can also be noted during phases of arousal or following intercourse without barrier contraception like a condom.
Why your period blood is not always the same color
When you have your period, the blood coming out of your vagina mixes with the normal vaginal discharge noticed throughout the menstrual cycle. This means that bacteria, dead cells, as well as gland secretions, continue. But it is difficult to notice this as it is mixed with your period blood.
The bright red blood and clots noticed during periods are the endometrial lining shedding through the cervix and the vagina. The bright red color is a healthy indication of periods, noticed commonly in the first few days of your periods.
The initial and final stages of a period might have dark brown to blackish period blood. While it can seem distressing, this is an indication of blood that has taken time to leave the uterus. The longer blood takes to leave, the more it gets oxidized, changing to a darker brown.
After waking up on the mornings of your periods, you may note that your period blood is a darker shade of red than usual. This is the blood that has stayed in the uterus for a while but hasn’t started oxidizing as yet.
Pink or orangish blood can be noted in the spotting at the beginning and the end of your periods. This is the blood that is mixing with the cervical and vaginal secretions.
Period blood that is a lighter shade of red, or slightly pink can indicate low estrogen production during the menstrual cycle. Estrogen is a vital hormone that enables the building of the uterine lining. Conversely, dark brown blood and irregular shedding of the uterus can indicate low progesterone levels.
Imbalances in hormones between menstrual cycles are prominently noted through the irregularity of menstrual cycles, more than the shade of period blood. However, it is always best to keep track of changes in vaginal discharge and menstrual blood to gauge overall health. We put together a short guide on period red flags if you’re worried about your period being normal.
Will My Vaginal Discharge Stay The Same Throughout My Life?
Vaginal discharge changes through the years in both consistency and frequency.
Following your first period, you may notice an increase in vaginal discharge throughout your cycle. However, for some, it might lessen once periods start. For the most part, the consistency remains the same, meaning you have whitish fluid with no significant odor.
During your 20s and up to menopause, vaginal discharge can go through changes depending on how external factors impact the function of the body. Stress, taking hormonal contraception, taking other medications, having children, and changes in lifestyle such as diet and exercise can all impact fluid discharge in one way or another.
For one cycle you might note the discharge to be more, and then less in the next. Additionally, since these changes also influence the length and consistency of your menstrual cycle, there might not be any discharge in some cycles followed by missing or delayed periods.
When you are nearing the age of menopause, vaginal discharge will go through additional changes. The declining hormones are the primary cause for the change in the discharge. Fewer hormones imply less discharge. The vagina and cervix are slowly drying out due to the minimal hormonal signals the glands receive during the perimenopause phase.
However, a slight discharge might be possible since the vagina might still be shedding off some cells along with the possible impact of other hormones on your body. This discharge is transparent to white, with no specific odor.
Signs your vaginal discharge is not normal
When discharge doesn’t fit the specific pattern described above, there might be some underlying infection that has resulted in the changes observed with your discharge.
The most common types of infectious discharges are:
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia: Bacterial infection that results in a thick yellowish to green discharge. Often cloudy. There might be a foul odor observed with it.
- Trichomonas: A yellowish to green watery discharge is noted with this infection. It can have a foul smell. You may also note pain and inflammation of the vagina and surrounding areas with this infection.
- Vaginal yeast infection: Caused by the fungus Candida, there is usually a cottage cheese discharge. It is generally lumpy. It is a common infectious vaginal discharge, as small changes in the vaginal ecosystem can result in a yeast infection. Periods of stress, illness, douching, or using medications can be contributory factors.
- Bacterial vaginosis: There is profuse vaginal discharge with this infection and a characteristically fishy odor. It is a frequent source of abnormal vaginal discharge.
If you suspect any one of the above you should see your doctor as soon as possible as they can cause long-term issues.
Vaginal discharge for menstruators is a sign of health - both good and that something is amiss. You can analyze your vaginal discharge by noticing changes in your underwear, on tissue paper, or by using your finger to assess your vagina and cervix. Especially for those tracking their fertile window, the cervical mucus plays a crucial role.
Wrapping up, it is important to remember that discharge is a normal part of having a healthy body. It is your body’s way of telling you what is going on and if something is amiss.
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