Understanding Vaginal Discharge: What’s Normal, What’s Not
Vaginal discharge is normal. The consistency, color, amount, and odour of vaginal discharge varies from person to person. However, certain changes may indicate an infection or other concerns. Read more here.
Vaginal discharge is normal, and most people with vaginas notice it every day. It is a white or clear fluid secreted through the glands in the vagina and cervix. Vaginal discharge helps in eliminating dead cell debris and bacteria from the body. Thus, it helps keep the vagina clean and free of infections and contributes to overall reproduction health. In fact, some may experience more discharge than others during certain phases of the menstrual cycle. Mucus has a slight odour and may change clear to milky white depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle.
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Vaginal discharge has a predictable pattern where appearance and viscosity of mucus depicts the ovulation stage a woman is on. In other words, one can know by looking at the secretion that changes throughout their menstruation cycle. During the initial stage of the menstrual cycle, which lasts 1 to 5 days, the uterine lining prepares itself for a fertilised egg to implant and develop. In case of no fertilised egg, the lining is shed—resulting in red discharge. This red fluid exits from vagina as thick blood, known as periods or menses. For the next 6 to 14 days, discharge is less as eggs start to develop during this time. In another 14 to 25 days, when a mature egg is released from the ovary (ovulation), there is more discharge. After ovulation, the appearance changes to cloudy white or yellow with a sticky consistency. After 25 to 28 days, secretion slows down until the next cycle begins.
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What is normal and abnormal vaginal discharge?
Though discharge is expected, it is important to know the difference between normal and abnormal vaginal discharge. The cervical mucus is acidic and has the presence of bacteria in it. The growth of bacteria is balanced by hormones and pH level in the vagina.
Most of the time, people do not realise that a change in vaginal mucus might be a sign of abnormal discharge. It can be recognised by a significantly increased amount, change in colour like yellow, green, grey, or brown. It may turn into a frothy, thick , chunky texture and emit fishy odour. This may indicate a problem that requires medical care.
What can cause abnormal vaginal discharge?
The vagina is a delicate ecosystem consisting of bacteria and other microorganisms that maintains the pH balance within. Any changes in the vaginal system can result in abnormal discharge. According to a 2018 European (IUSTI/WHO) International Union against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI) guideline, published in journal International Journal of STD & AIDS, vaginal infection and discharge may be caused by a range of other physiological and pathological conditions including atrophic vaginitis, desquamative inflammatory vaginitis, cervicitis, and mucoid ectopy. Psychosexual problems may also occur with recurrent episodes of vaginal discharge and vulvar burning.
Some factors that can result in abnormal vaginal discharge are:
1. Disrupted pH balance: Many factors can meddle with the natural pH balance of the vagaina—which can cause higher risk of infections in the female reproductive system. Abnormal vaginal discharge could be the result of using antibiotics, birth control pills, steroids, douching, scented soaps, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), diabetes, infections or cervical cancer.
2. Infections: Unprotected sex is also a principal cause behind sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea or chlamydia, which results in abnormal discharge. Here's how to practice safe sex.
3. Menopause: Low estrogen levels during menopause can cause vaginal discharge.
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Different types of vaginal discharge and what they mean:
1. Grey or yellow with fishy odour: In this type of discharge, one might experience itching, redness and swelling around vagina. A grey coloured mucus is considered unhealthy with a fishy smell indicating bacterial vaginosis.
2. White and thick (cheesy): A white or cream-colored discharge with thick consistency is generally a sign of healthy lubrication. However, if there is a strong odour and itching along the white mucus, then it is a symptom of yeast infection. The person might even feel pain during sexual intercourse due to this.
3. Pink: This type of discharge consists of a bit of blood and usually occurs as spotting before the start of periods. Sometimes, it is an indication of implantation bleeding in early pregnancy or a tear in vagina or cervix during sex.
4. Yellow or greenish with odour: Appearance of darker shades of yellow or greenish yellow cervical mucus with thick frothy, sticky consistency and foul smell is associated with sexually transmitted diseases like Gonorrhea or Trichomoniasis.
5. Brown or rusty red: This could be a sign of an infection, retained foregin objects or other concerns that warrant a visit to a gynaecologist for further investigation. Reddish brown coloured discharge could also occur after periods stops, which means it is old blood exiting or late discharge also known as spotting.
6. Clear or white: Normal discharge is clear or white and has slippery consistency. It usually occurs prior to ovulation, during erotic arousal or pregnancy.
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