Vaginal discharge is a common occurrence among women of reproductive age. It is the body’s way of keeping the vagina clean and healthy by removing dead cells and bacteria. While vaginal discharge is normal, it can sometimes cause concern.
What is vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is a fluid that is produced by the glands in the cervix and vagina. This fluid can vary in colour, consistency, and odour depending on the stage of a woman’s menstrual cycle, age, and hormonal changes. In most cases, vaginal discharge is not a cause for concern, and it is a natural process that helps to maintain the health of the vagina.
The appearance and consistency of vaginal discharge can vary, depending on the individual. Typically, the discharge is clear or white, and it may be thick or thin. The amount of discharge can also vary, with some women producing more discharge than others. The odour of the discharge is usually mild and may be described as musky or slightly sweet.
The appearance of vaginal discharge can also vary depending on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. During ovulation, the discharge may become thinner, clearer, and stretchy, similar to the consistency of egg whites. This is a sign that a woman is at her most fertile and indicates that it may be an optimal time for conception.
Colour, consistency, and amount of “normal” discharge can also change daily, depending on where a person is in their menstrual cycle. The monthly schedule for normal discharge ranges below:
- Days 1–5. At the beginning of the cycle, discharge is usually red or bloody as the body sheds the uterine lining.
- Days 6–14. Following a period, a person may notice less vaginal discharge than usual. As the egg starts to develop and mature, the cervical mucus will become cloudy and white or yellow. It may feel sticky.
- Days 14–25. A few days before ovulation, the mucus will be thin and slippery, similar to the consistency of egg whites. After ovulation, the mucus will return to being cloudy, white or yellow, and possibly sticky or tacky.
- Days 25–28. The cervical mucus will lighten, and a person will see less of it before getting another period.
What could indicate a problem?
While vaginal discharge is a normal bodily function, there are certain instances when it could indicate a problem. Some of the signs to watch out for include the following:
- A change in the colour, consistency, or odour of the discharge
- Itching or burning in the vaginal area
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Abnormal bleeding
If you experience any of these symptoms, you must see your healthcare provider. They can examine the discharge and perform any necessary tests to determine the cause of the problem. In some cases, vaginal discharge may signify an infection, such as bacterial vaginosis, a yeast infection, or sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.
Some of the possible cases of abnormal discharge and their probable causes are:
- Bacterial vaginosis – A common bacterial infection that causes increased strong and foul-smelling vaginal discharge with a sometimes fishy odor. Discharge may also look gray, thin, and watery. In some cases, the infection produces no symptoms.
- Trichomoniasis – Usually spread by sexual contact, but can also be contracted by sharing towels or bathing suits. Affected females will often notice a yellow, green, or frothy discharge with an unpleasant odor.
- Yeast infection – This occurs when yeast growth increases in the vagina and produces a thick and white discharge visibly similar to cottage cheese. This discharge doesn’t usually smell.
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia – These are STIs that can produce an abnormal discharge due to infecting the cervix, which is often yellow, greenish, or cloudy in color.
- Genital herpes – This STI can lead to thick, strong-smelling vaginal discharge, particularly after sex.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease – Heavy, foul-smelling discharge and pain in the stomach after sex or while menstruating or urinating may be signs of pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Human papillomavirus or cervical cancer – While there may be no symptoms, this type of cancer can result in bloody, brown, or watery discharge with an unpleasant odor.
In rare cases, brown or bloody discharge can also signify endometrial cancer, fibroids, or other growths.
Preventing and managing vaginal discharge
The best way to prevent vaginal discharge is to practice good hygiene. This includes washing the vaginal area with warm water and mild soap, avoiding scented products that could irritate the area, and wearing breathable cotton underwear. It’s also important to change out of wet clothing as soon as possible, such as after swimming or exercise.
If you do experience abnormal vaginal discharge, there are steps you can take to manage it. For example, if the discharge is caused by a yeast infection, an over-the-counter medication may be recommended. In cases of bacterial vaginosis or sexually transmitted infections, prescription medication may be necessary. It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations and take any medications as directed to fully treat the problem.