Meet Your Reliable Health Indicator: Vaginal Discharge

If you have a vagina, you've probably spent a decent amount of time wondering if what's coming out of it is normal.

But bringing up your vaginal discharge and asking your friends if theirs looks and smells the same isn't typically accepted happy hour chitchat.

It’s the thing no one wants to talk about but everyone is Googling. No, really: "Vaginal discharge" is searched more than 50,000 times per month worldwide according to Buzz Sumo, a keyword search engine. Concern about discharge is "the number one reason why women go to the gyno," said Michael Cackovic, M.D., an ob/gyn at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. When it comes to discharge, what's "normal" varies greatly, depending on all sorts of things—even your stress levels or the foods you eat. Knowing how much discharge is normal, what color it should be and what it should smell like can actually help you spot some serious health problems, including sexually transmitted infections.

Keep an eye down there

"Normal is about a teaspoon every 24 hours," Cackovic says. "It can be white, transparent, thick, thin, mostly odorless, but there may be a slight odor," he adds. A faint odor is simply from the cells of the cervix and vagina that have sloughed off and are being dispelled. For women who are menopausal or post-menopausal, it's not uncommon to have more or less discharge than normal because of the changes in estrogen levels.

Any changes in amount, consistency or smell could indicate there's a problem, which is why it's important to know what's normal for your body. Your first clue that something may be amiss down below could be a change in color or consistency, a sudden bad smell, an unusually large amount of discharge, itching outside the vagina, pain in the pelvis or tummy, or unexpected bleeding from the vagina. If you've noticed any of these, you should see a doctor.

Types of discharge during a healthy cycle

Vaginal discharge can be many colors, and several indicate a healthy body. The amount of vaginal discharge also changes regularly, based on which point you are at in your menstrual cycle:

Days 1–5. At the beginning of the cycle, discharge is usually red or bloody, as the body sheds the uterine lining. The shade of red can vary from bright to a dark rust color. If this type of discharge occurs during your period, it is normal, even if it contains a bit of blood; and if it occurs at the end of your period, it may just be residual menstrual blood.

Days 6–14. Following a period, you 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. This is the discharge you want – it’s clear and watery and is perfectly normal. It can occur at any time, although it may be particularly prevalent after exercise. If it’s clear, but a bit sticky/stretchy and resembles mucous, it means you are ovulating and is nothing to be concerned about.

After ovulation, the mucus will go back to being cloudy, white or yellow, and possibly sticky or tacky. A few days after ovulation, you may not notice any discharge at all, because the cervical mucus (which is the egg white discharge) is no longer needed to trap sperm. But don't be alarmed if you have a thicker creamier white discharge. After you have ovulated and produced eggs, there will be a release of the hormone progesterone in the bloodstream, and this is the reason for the white discharge.

Days 25–28. The cervical mucus will lighten, and you will see less of it, before getting another period.

When you should be concerned

If you have a bloodier, spottier discharge between your periods, it may indicate pregnancy. In very rare instances, it can indicate cervical cancer, so if you are concerned, it’s best to get a medical check-up.

A thick, white discharge with the texture of cottage cheese is a common symptom of a yeast infection, which occurs when the levels of yeast in your vagina are off balance. Let your doctor know — especially if you have other symptoms like an itchy vagina, irritated labia, or pain when you pee. The good news is yeast infections are easily treated.

Discharge can become slightly discolored when it hits the air, so if you notice some pale yellow discharge in your undies, that's the most likely explanation. But discharge that is thick in texture and has a greenish or yellowish-tinge to it is not a sign of a healthy vagina, especially if it has a bad odor. Often this turns out to be a sexually transmitted infection. If your discharge is green and smells fishy, that could be bacterial vaginosis, which, like a yeast infection, occurs when the bacteria in your vagina is off balance.

A strong, foul, fishy odor with a thin, grayish-white discharge is a classic symptom of a bacterial infection. Of course, not every odor is caused by an infection — it could just be something as simple as what you ate today — but it's still worth a trip to the gynecologist to rule out something more serious.

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