When you think about it, human bodies are amazing mechanisms, made up of tons of parts that work in sync to keep us alive and healthy. And if you happen to have a reproductive system that can, sometimes, be used to create life, it's astonishing to learn how it keeps itself clean and lubricated. So while there's stigma abound when it comes to vaginal health (or just vaginas in general), what our vaginal discharge really means can cue us in on a number of things our bodies are likely trying to tell us about our health and wellbeing.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the time discharge is nothing to worry about, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). The vagina normally produces a water-based secretion that serves to keep the genitals clean and remove dead cells from the vaginal lining. The estrogen produced by our bodies also support the growth of healthy bacteria in the vagina, which keeps the pH levels slightly acidic and wards off unhealthy microorganisms that can lead to illness.
Normal vaginal discharge is clear or white, with no odor. During your period, of course, your body expels the blood from your uterine lining, so your discharge can appear bright or dark red. But any time you notice a change in the color, odor, or amount of vaginal secretions, particularly if you also have symptoms such as fever, vaginal, or vulvar itching, or burning during urination or sex, something's out of whack.
These are some of the most common changes you might see in your vaginal discharge. Some are no big deal, while others require a doctor's attention.
Right around the time you ovulate (typically around two weeks after your period), your vagina produces a discharge that's thicker and slightly sticky, similar to an egg white, explained WebMD. This change in consistency helps sperm travel toward the released egg.
You May Have A Yeast Infection
Abnormal vaginal discharge is a typical symptom of one of the many forms of vaginitis, a general term for any inflammation of the vagina, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. One of the most common forms of vaginitis is candidiasis, otherwise known as a yeast infection. Caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina, a yeast infection often produces a white, lumpy, odorless vaginal discharge, along with intense itching and redness around the vulva.
Although over-the-counter medications will usually clear up the problem, ACOG recommends calling your doctor before self-treating a yeast infection. And if you've never had a yeast infection before, it's best to see your doctor in person.
You Have A Bacterial Infection
Another type of vaginitis can occur when excess bacteria collects in the vagina, according to the Mayo Clinic. Also known as bacterial vaginosis, this infection can cause a thin gray or green vaginal discharge, along with a distinctive fishy odor, itching, and burning when you pee. See a doctor if you notice these symptoms, as you may need to be treated with an oral antibiotic or a vaginal gel. Bacterial vaginosis may be caused by excessive douching or use of scented soaps or pads, so use those particular products sparingly.
If you experience only light bleeding or spotting around the time you would normally get your period, you might want to pick up a pregnancy test. As the Mayo Clinic explained, an early sign of pregnancy is implantation bleeding, caused by the fertilized egg attaching to the uterine lining. Experiencing larger amounts of normal vaginal discharge is also common during pregnancy, according to ACOG.
You May Have An STI
If your discharge is white, yellow, gray, or green, and you also notice a foul smell, itching, and/or pain with urination or intercourse, this could signal a sexually transmitted infection called trichomoniasis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Caused by a parasite, trichomoniasis is passed between sexual partners, so having more than one partner or not using a condom put you at risk of contracting the infection. This STI doesn't go away on its own, so if you notice these symptoms, see your doctor or urgent care center ASAP for diagnosis. If you do have trichomoniasis, both you and your partner will need to be treated with a strong medication such as Flagyl, as well as abstaining from sex for a week or until the infection is gone.
You've Just Had Your Period
Toward the end of your period, you may notice a brown vaginal discharge, according to Healthline. Not to worry; this is just older blood being shed from your uterine lining. Brown discharge during or between periods can be caused by birth control (such as implants), and is common in younger girls and in women approaching menopause. But if you're pregnant and notice brown or red discharge or spotting, call your doctor immediately as this may be a sign of miscarriage.