Though we may not readily admit it, we all analyze the contents of our underwear when we're sitting on the toilet or before we toss it in the laundry. Turns out, this habit that many may label as “gross” or “weird” is neither of these things. In fact, medical experts encourage it.
“The goal is always to feel confident about your vaginal health,” says Dr. Sara Zarè, a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) at Radiant Health in San Francisco, California. “Many women are uninformed when it comes to what should be going on down there. By knowing what your vaginal discharge should look and smell like, you could spot a nasty infection.”
In addition to keeping infections at bay, paying attention to discharge can offer clues into your cycle and fertility. “A woman can often note an increase in vaginal discharge, as well as cervical mucus, during ovulation, pregnancy, times of sexual arousal, and just prior to the menstrual period,” adds Stefani Davis, a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) and Doctor of Nursing (DNP) who works at a high-risk clinic in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Vaginal discharge can be a helpful indicator of both fertility and cycle tracking.”
So before you divert your eyes from the sticky stuff in your panties, keep in mind that your vaginal discharge is actually tool that can help you better understand your health. (In other words, scrutinize away!) We collaborated with three experts to create this vaginal discharge guide to support you on all of your future underwear investigations.
What exactly is vaginal discharge?
First, it’s important to remember that vaginal discharge is common for women of reproductive age. “Vaginal discharge is a normal occurence that all women experience throughout their lifetime,” says Davis. “It’s a fluid that’s composed of the secretions that are released by the cervical mucosa as well as the oils secreted by the glands near our vaginas.” Essentially, vaginal discharge is primarily made up two components: Fluid released from your cervix and oils released from your vaginal glands.
So why do I have it?
“The purpose of vaginal discharge is to maintain the moisture and health of the vaginal tissues,” says Dr. Amanda Barrett, an OB-GYN at Nashville’s Women Obstetrics & Gynecology. Ever experienced vaginal dryness or chafing? (Spoiler alert: It’s not comfortable.) As Barrett points out, this is one of the benefits of vaginal discharge—it keeps the vagina moist.
In terms of vaginal health, Zarè explains that discharge helps the vagina clean and rid itself of infection. “Vaginal discharge keeps the vagina clean by removing dead cells and bacteria, which helps to prevent infection,” she says. “Thanks to vaginal discharge, there is no need to use cleaning products like douches, soaps, or shampoos in this area. The vagina is excellent at self-cleaning.”
This is because vaginal discharge contains “lactobacillus,” a healthy bacteria and microorganism that naturally exists in the vagina and its discharge. Lactobacillus is responsible for fighting any “bad,” infection-causing bacteria. Davis says, “The normal organisms in the vagina that are present in vaginal discharge, such as the lactobacillus species, help prevent against vaginal infections.”
How do I know if my discharge is normal?
When talking with all three experts, they used four attributes to describe vaginal discharge as it relates to your health, cycle, and fertility: smell, texture, color, and volume. (Who knew sommeliers and women’s health specialists relied on the same criteria?) According to Davis, healthy discharge is usually clear to white with a thin texture. “Women have their own unique smell to vaginal discharge, but normal discharge does not have a foul-smelling odor.”
Zarè adds that like smell, volume differs between patients. “The amount of discharge varies from woman to woman.” All three experts emphasized that both the consistency and volume of healthy discharge can shift depending on where you are in your cycle.
Speaking of discharge and your cycle...
Dr. Barrett breaks this down for us: “During menstruation, it is bloody and may be red, pink, brown or nearly black. After menstruation, the amount of discharge will be less, but there is often sticky, thick, and white discharge. A few days before ovulation, when a woman is most fertile, the discharge becomes stretchy, creamy, and wet. This ‘egg white cervical mucus’ is more hospitable to sperm. During ovulation, the discharge then becomes thin, stretchy and very slippery. After ovulation, the discharge is stretchy, creamy, and wet, similar to how it appeared prior to ovulation.”
However, Davis points out that many external variables such as medications, hormonal changes, sexual practices, and anatomy can impact discharge. When using it to track your cycle or the days you’re most fertile, she advises to look at the whole picture, which can also include discharge. “It’s important to monitor other changes throughout your cycle, reliably detect when ovulation has occurred, and correctly track your menstrual cycles,” she says. “There are many helpful applications and technologies out there to aid women in tracking their menstrual cycles and fertility, as well as education from their healthcare providers.”
What about not-so-normal discharge?
If vaginal discharge ever takes on an unusual smell or color and is accompanied by burning or itching, it’s critical to make an appointment with your doctor. This could indicate an infection or other condition. Davis and Zarè provided the following examples using the texture, volume, smell, and color criteria.
A large, frothy amount of green or yellow-colored and offensive-smelling discharge is consistent with trichomoniasis, a common and treatable sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Yellow or green-colored mucopurulent (resembling mucus or pus) discharge can indicate chlamydia or gonorrhea, two types of treatable STDs.
Brown or brownish discharge can be a sign of an irregular cycle or in less frequent cases, endometrial or cervical cancer. (Keep in mind, it’s normal to have brown, red, pink, or nearly black discharge during your cycle.)
A moderate amount of white, curd or cottage cheese-like discharge is consistent with candida, commonly known as a yeast infection. This is caused by excess yeast growing in the vagina.
Thin and watery white or gray discharge that has a fishy odor can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, which occurs when there’s more harmful than beneficial bacteria in the vagina.
There’s a reason we rely on practitioners like Barrett, Zarè, and Davis: It’s often difficult for us to self-diagnose infections based on symptoms like discharge. “Talk with your healthcare provider if you notice potential signs of an infection so that you can receive the proper treatment,” advises Davis.
In terms of treatment, there are many over-the-counter options for yeast infections. However, bacterial infections like bacterial vaginosis require a medical diagnosis and prescription, as well as STDs. “With bacterial infections, an antibiotic is the first line of treatment,” says Davis. “Most importantly, it is imperative to see a medical professional if you are concerned you may have been exposed to an STD. If left untreated, STDs can cause complications in the future.”
Get down with your discharge
All three women agree on the importance of establishing familiarity with your discharge. By doing this, you’ll be able to notice if something is ever unusual and make a doctor’s appointment if necessary. “It is very important to know what is normal for you and see a doctor if you notice any major changes,” says Zarè.
Doctor’s orders: On your next trip to the bathroom, take a peek at your underwear to familiarize yourself with your vaginal discharge and your health.