Disregarding vaginal discharge is a common mistake that's made while discussing menstrual health with young women. Typically, it's not perceived to be as important as menstrual bleeding or hygiene. In Scarlet's Period Basics Series, we answer all your questions!
When I reached puberty, no one said a thing about vaginal discharge, what it was, how frequently I would experience it, and what vaginal discharge means. Embarrassed, I never discussed it with anyone. That is, until I learned about the menstrual cycle in detail.
It is frustrating at times, the uncomfortable feeling of the discharge and having to change underwear continuously. It is what it is... But, vaginal discharge can tell us a lot about menstrual health. The color of normal vaginal discharge, it's odor, and consistency; each characteristic communicates a story. Physiologic or normal discharge occurs during the menstrual cycle and is associated with natural changes in hormone levels. And pathological or abnormal discharge is associated with vaginitis, or an inflammation of the vagina.
Why do women even have vaginal discharge? What's the purpose of it? Physiologic or Normal Vaginal Discharge is either clear, white, or off-white and has no odor...
It keeps the vaginal walls lubricated and moistened and helps prevent and fight infection. Clear discharge that is copious and stretchy (similar to an egg white's consistency) indicates ovulation. Ovulation occurs in the middle of the menstrual cycle, a few days after the period ends.
For women, who want to conceive, the changes in consistency of vaginal discharge consistency is a pertinent indicator of ovulation. After ovulation, vaginal discharge becomes sticky and dry, as estrogen levels start to decline, and progesterone levels rise.
If you notice the texture, color, and odor of normal vaginal discharge start to change - it may be Pathological or Abnormal Vaginal Discharge.
Below, we've listed each condition that may cause Abnormal Vaginal Discharge, and tell-tale changes in color, odor and/or texture.
A Fungal or Yeast infection:
What is a Yeast Infection? Also known as vaginal or vulvovaginal candidiasis, this type of infection leads to thick-white, odorless discharge with a cottage cheese-like consistency. Other symptoms of yeast infection in women are intense itchiness, burning sensation, painful sex, painful urination, and redness of the vaginal mucosa.
A yeast infection caused by the Candida species is not sexually transmitted. Candida is naturally present in the vaginal flora and does not usually cause candidiasis. But, when a woman's immunity is compromised, a change occur's in the vaginal environment; leading to an overgrowth of the fungus resulting in candidiasis. Women who are vulnerable to vaginal candidiasis are those who:
● are pregnant women
● have recently used antibiotics
● have uncontrolled diabetes mellitus
● are on birth control pills
● have a weak immune system (such as women who are taking steroidal medication or are
What is Bacterial Vaginosis or BV? It is a non-sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterial lactobacillus species. The pH of the vagina is naturally acidic. When the pH of the vagina becomes more alkaline, this bacterial organism overgrows, resulting in classic symptoms.
These symptoms include; vaginal discharge that is thin and milky. Discharge might be white, clear, or gray in color and has a fishy odor. There is no associated itching, which distinguishes it from vaginal candidiasis. Women who are at risk of bacterial vaginosis are those who:
● are smoking
● regularly douche their vaginas
● have new or multiple sexual partners
● use an intrauterine contraceptive device
● have unprotected sexual intercourse
What is Trichomoniasis? It is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the parasite protozoan trichomonads. In these cases, vaginal discharge is profuse, frothy, and yellow-green. Other symptoms include vaginal soreness, vulvar itching, painful sex, and painful urination. The risk factors for Trichomoniasis are similar to those of bacterial vaginosis (above).
Chlamydia and Gonorrhea:
Are sexually transmitted infections that are mostly asymptomatic. However, purulent (containing pus) vaginal discharge is a common symptom.
Why stay aware of Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge is one of the factors that measures menstrual health. From telling us if we have an infection or about the timeline of our menstrual cycle - that's why educating oneself about vaginal discharge is important!
1) Spence D, Melville C. Vaginal discharge. BMJ. 2007 Dec 1;335(7630):1147-51. doi: 10.1136/bmj.39378.633287.80. PMID: 18048541; PMCID: PMC2099568
2) Hainer BL, Gibson MV. Vaginitis. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Apr 1;83(7):807-15. PMID: 21524046