Vaginal discharge, despite causing embarrassment or worry for some, is an essential element in maintaining reproductive health. Understanding the composition of vaginal discharge and distinguishing between normal and abnormal discharge is crucial. Experts provide valuable insights on the topic, which are highlighted below.
No. 1: Vaginal discharge is normal
The first point to note about vaginal discharge is that it is normal. This fluid is generally clear or white and originates from the vagina. It is common to have some level of vaginal discharge throughout the monthly cycle. According to Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist based in New York and co-author of The Complete A to Z for Your V, most women or individuals with vaginas experience vaginal discharge. Despite the social stigma attached to vaginal discharge, Dr. Dweck emphasizes that people should not feel ashamed about it.
No. 2: Discharge helps keep vaginas healthy
Dr. Dweck describes the vagina as a self-cleaning organ, which can maintain its cleanliness through natural processes, with discharge playing an integral role. As she explains, vaginal discharge primarily consists of mucus from the cervix, fluid from the vagina itself, bacteria, and shed cells from the cervix, vagina, and uterus. Its main purpose is to help the vagina stay healthy and maintain a regular microbiome.
Moreover, discharge can also protect the vagina from harmful bacteria and infections, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The vaginal microbiome contains Lactobacilli, which produce lactic acid, known to inhibit the growth of several bacteria, thereby preventing infections.
No. 3: It helps with sex
Vaginal discharge serves as a lubricant during sexual activity and prevents vaginal tissues from becoming dry and itchy. According to Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine, women need some moisture in the vagina to have comfortable sex. Dr. Alyssa Dweck agrees, stating that the vagina was designed to be super moist to facilitate sperm movement and comfortable sexual experiences.
Although the vagina does not have any glands to produce moisture, vaginal discharge is generated by good blood flow to the pelvis and the vagina, as Dr. Minkin explains. During sexual arousal, vaginal transudate, a type of fluid, gets transported from the bloodstream to the vagina, lubricating it. Essentially, an increase in blood flow forces fluid from the blood vessels and into the vaginal walls, creating lubrication.
No. 4: How much discharge your body produces can vary
The amount of vaginal discharge produced by the body varies from person to person. Some individuals naturally produce more discharge than others. The quantity and texture of discharge may also change at different times throughout the menstrual cycle. For individuals of reproductive age, these changes can indicate ovulation.
As ovulation approaches, discharge volume increases and becomes more adhesive. However, just before or during ovulation, the texture changes to a thin, watery consistency similar to raw egg whites, according to Dr. Dweck, due to “hormonal changes that stimulate these secretions.” Planned Parenthood suggests rubbing the discharge between your thumb and index finger to assess its consistency.
No. 5: Changes in vaginal discharge can signal an infection
Any changes to the color, texture, or odor of vaginal discharge may indicate an infection. The healthy bacteria in the vagina prevent harmful bacteria from proliferating. However, as Dr. Dweck explains, the use of tampons, douching, or sexual intercourse can disrupt this delicate balance, leading to irritation or infection.
Normal vaginal discharge may have a faint scent, but it usually lacks a strong odor. According to Dr. Dweck, scent becomes an odor in the presence of an infection. The most common types of infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV), yeast infections, and trichomoniasis, a type of parasitic protozoan. Dr. Minkin explains that bacterial infections result from an overgrowth of bad bacteria and are not sexually transmitted. Yeast infections are caused by yeast, while trichomonas is an amoeba-type organism that typically spreads through sexual contact.
According to Dr. Minkin, bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis can both cause a fishy and unpleasant odor, while yeast infections typically smell like yeast. Discharge color can also provide information about an infection. Discharge from bacterial infections like BV can be grayish, while trichomoniasis produces greenish-yellow discharge. On the other hand, a yeast infection typically produces white discharge with a “cottage cheesy” appearance and causes itching.
If you suspect a yeast infection and have had one before, Dr. Minkin suggests using an over-the-counter yeast treatment product. However, both BV and trichomoniasis require antibiotics to treat. If you notice a persistent strong odor, or if the color or consistency of your discharge changes, it is advisable to consult your gynecologist. As Dr. Minkin points out, sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can also impact vaginal discharge and necessitate a doctor’s visit.
Above all, Dr. Dweck recommends being aware of what is typical for you and seeing a doctor if something seems unusual.