It’s pretty normal for a group of lady friends to discuss their periods, sex lives, poop habits, even yogurt preferences. But one topic that’s still off the table, and entirely inappropriate for a nice brunch or book club, is the topic of VAGINAL DISCHARGE.
But what’s the big deal? Every person with a vagina produces it, and every person with a vagina (myself included) has wondered: Is mine normal? Also: What the hell is this stuff??
Discharge—which btw is completely normal—does not need to be a mystery. In fact, learning how to “read” it can provide useful information!
Lucky for you, I am here to decode it for you, once and for all.
What is discharge?
First, the basics. Discharge is a substance produced by the female reproductive system, comprised mainly of water, micro-organisms, and vaginal cells. Its production is "activated" by the hormone estrogen, which triggers the vaginal walls and glands of the cervix and uterus to shed old cells and flush them out. The result is that sticky substance we all know and love…in our underwear.
"Normal" vaginal discharge varies from woman to woman. Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle—and your body’s own unique biological magic—it can range from clear to milky white, from thin and viscous to tacky and amazingly stretchy.
Note that it's the vagina's internal parts that do the excreting. Neither the labia nor any of the external portions of the vulva contain any glands, and no glands means no discharge.
What is the purpose of discharge?
If you haven’t heard, your vagina is a self-cleaning oven! We have discharge to thank for that. “The purpose of discharge is to keep the vagina clean,” explains Vanessa Cullins, the vice president for external medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
I like to think of discharge like an artisanal cleansing product, made for and by your vagina.
When do women first start producing discharge?
We start to produce discharge during puberty. “That’s when your ovaries wake up," says Cullins, and the body begins to make estrogen, which is the key hormone in stimulating discharge. (Puberty is also, of course, when females start to ovulate and menstruate.)
“The vagina has superficial layers that are highly estrogen-sensitive,” explains Cheryl Iglesia, an OBGYN and professor at Georgetown University Medical School, and the smallest spike or dip in the body’s estrogen level can make the layers lining the vaginal canal start shedding—triggering discharge.
What impacts the color and texture of discharge?
You've probably noticed your discharge morphs throughout the month. “It’s going to change throughout your cycle," says Cullins. "Once you get a handle on your pattern, that should give you a certain degree of confidence regarding what’s normal for you—and trigger when it might make sense for you to be evaluated by a women’s health care provider.”
Environmental factors such as stress or dehydration can also lead to a change in the amount or consistency of vaginal discharge produced, explains Cullins. Essentially, any change in the body’s water content can lead to a change in discharge.
Notably, your birth control might impact what your discharge looks like, too, since hormonal birth control stops the body from having a “natural” menstrual cycle. The hormones in oral birth control pills tend to make vaginal discharge thicker and stickier—and more likely to block any sperm trying to work their way up the vaginal canal.
Should normal discharge smell?
Not really. “It might have a mild smell, but it shouldn’t be offensive," says Cullins. "You'd have to put it really close to your nose to even find it somewhat offensive."
How do you know if your discharge is unhealthy?
Here’s what your discharge should not look and/or smell like:
Thick and clumpy (that might be a sign of a yeast infection), stinky and fishy with a yellow or green hue (that could signal a bacterial infection such as trichomoniasis or gonorrhea), or watery white, gray, or yellow (that could signal bacterial vaginosis).
Brown or bloody discharge might also fall outside the range of normal, signaling irregular periods and in rare cases endometrial or cervical cancer.
If your discharge does not meet one of these descriptions, you're probably okay. As long as you’re not experiencing “itching, pain, burning, a foul odor, or a great change in color such as brown, deep yellow, or green," says Cullins, "don’t worry about your discharge." That said, if you notice a pronounced change in your discharge, you should consult a medical professional.
Why does unhealthy discharge look so gnarly?
In most cases, abnormal discharge is a symptom of an infection—and infections are often accompanied by not-good bacteria in the vagina. This bacteria is to blame for transforming your discharge into something ominous-looking.
But other things can cause funky discharge, too. Like, say, shoving bags of herbs up your poor, hard-working vagina in the name of “detoxing.” ICYMI, your vagina already knows how to “detox” and clean itself (through all that lovely discharge) and does not need any outside help—particularly from foreign bodies shoved up it and left to sit and interrupt its normal, healthy, acidic environment.
Pregnancy changes things
Pregnancy might change your discharge too. (Again, see: estrogen.) But some changes in discharge post-delivery might not be actual discharge. After childbirth, “the vagina gets stretchy,” says Iglesia. And certain internal organs, such as your bladder, uretha, vagina, and uterus, “come down, and there might be a change in discharge because of a pelvic organ prolapse.”
There can also be, as Iglesia puts it, a change in the vaginal ecosystem—namely, its levels of healthy bacteria and acidity—resulting from the process of, y’know, pushing a human being out through your vaginal canal.
What you think might be discharge might actually be pee
If you've had a baby and you now have a lot more discharge than you did before, well—you might just be seeing pee. (Again, you can thank that human you pushed out, if you delivered vaginally.)
“Some women can’t retain a tampon” after childbirth, says Iglesia, “and might have issues with urinary incontinence." If you notice unusual wetness, "that may be urine, not discharge, and you should get that checked out."
Menopause changes things, too
During menopause, a woman becomes "like you were before puberty,” explains Iglesia. “You’re in a very low estrogenic state. And once you have low estrogen, the cells in your innermost vaginal lining thin out, some of that good bacteria die—and now you have a lack of discharge because of that whole microbiome change.”
What to do? “You need a probiotic for the vagina,” says Iglesia, to get those good bacteria revved back up and to get things feeling, well, moist again. She also recommends local estrogen in the form of a tablet, ring, or cream. These FDA-approved products recreate the process the body used to create on its own moisture—and most importantly, Iglesia notes, “they don’t cause breast cancer, because they absorb locally and your physician can moderate your dosage to avoid other side effects."
Never, ever douche!
Despite the many "vaginal potions and lotion,” on the market, says Iglesia, your best bet for a healthy and happy vagina is to stay far, far away from them.
“The biggest misperception is that you need to douche or clean inside the vagina,” says Cullins. “It is not necessary to douche, and in fact douching can disturb the normal bacteria that are in the vagina and are needed to keep the vagina healthy and prevent infection.”
It is important, though, to clean the external portions of the vagina with mild soap and water.
Bottom line? Your vagina is pretty damn awesome: It cleans itself through the magic of discharge, and uses that discharge to let you know when something might be off. If your vagina is your best friend, think of discharge as your BFF necklace—a physical reminder that it loves you, is awesome, and always has your back.
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.