We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off-limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how to tell whether your discharge is normal — and what your vaginal discharge is trying to tell you about your health .
Q: My whole life, I’ve noticed that my discharge changes in a bunch of different ways depending on the week — stuff like smell, color, and consistency. What I’m wondering is, what do the different looks and types of vaginal discharge mean? Can I tell what’s up with my body by checking it out? How do I know if my discharge is normal?
A: Your vulva may be your second set of lips, but that doesn’t mean you can always understand what it’s trying to say to you. Vaginal discharge is one of the main ways your body attempts to convey critical health information to you — such as vaginal pH imbalance, infection, or excitement and pleasure.
First off, what’s "normal" when we’re talking about vaginal discharge? Basically, everyone with a vulva discharges some fluid. This fluid that comes from vaginal and cervical glands is super important to your overall reproductive health, and that’s because it clears away bacteria and dead cells as it flows through your vaginal canal and out into your panties. That’s right, this goo is your home-grown vaginal cleaning tool, and it's all you need to stay clean.
Healthy vaginal discharge can range from clear to milky white, and its normal consistency is pretty thin and can be stringy and have whiter flecks. Your amount of vaginal discharge can change based on things like stress, ovulation, pregnancy, and being turned on. Here are the main culprits of changes to your vaginal discharge — what’s causing it, what the warning signs of unhealthy discharge look like, and what to do to fix it.
1. "You’re Dehydrated"
Whenever your body is dehydrated, it needs to subvert the extra water usually used to make all your bodily fluids to more serious life-saving tasks, which means that all your fluids get more viscous as a result. Vaginal secretions aren’t spared from this water reallocation, so if you’re a bit parched you’ll probably notice that your vaginal discharge is thicker. This is an easy one to fix — just drink some fluids!
2. “You’re Stressed”
Stress can wreak havoc on your body in a bunch of different ways, and your discharge isn’t spared. If you’re experiencing a bout of anxiety, chances are you’re also experiencing more discharge. This has to do with the hormonal imbalances stress can cause, (because just feeling wigged out isn’t enough).
On the flip side, stress can also contribute to vaginal dryness during sex, which makes sense, because when you’re stressing, it’s harder to concentrate on getting excited. So if you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, do whatever you do to calm yourself down, whether it be meditating, taking yourself out on a Netflix and chill date, or going for a long walk. Your vulva will thank you (as will the rest of your body and mind).
3. "Your pH Balance Is Off"
You have an optimal pH balance, and when that balance is off, part of how your body lets you know is through changes in discharge. If your pH gets too basic, you can end up with a yeast infection, which makes your discharge look like and have the consistency of cottage cheese — white and clumpy. Or you could have bacterial vaginosis, in which case your discharge will be thin, gray or white-colored, and smell fishy. If your pH goes the other route and becomes too acidic, you could get cytolytic vaginosis, and your discharge will be either “watery thin” or “curd-like thick”.
Luckily, many of these imbalances are treatable by home remedies, and if those don’t work, your doctor will help you out.
4. "You Have A Sexually Transmitted Infection"
Many STIs have changes in vaginal discharge amongst their many symptoms. For instance, trichomoniasis (an STI you may not know about that’s actually a teeny-tiny parasite) comes with vaginal discharge that is smelly, frothy, foamy, and either yellow or gray-green. If you experience chlamydia symptoms, they can include more vaginal discharge than you’re used to, and the same goes for human papillomavirus (HPV), if you get one of the strains that cause genital warts. Gonorrhea can be spotted in part through yellow vaginal discharge.
If you’re worried you have any of these, go see your doctor. They’ll be able to diagnose you for sure and give you treatment.
5. "You Have Pelvic Inflammatory Disease"
Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, is a bacterial infection in your reproductive organs. The bacteria usually get there through sexual transmission, like chlamydia or gonorrhea, but it can also get into your inside parts through other things like an unclean IUD insertion. Some people don’t experience PID symptoms, but if you do, you can get heavy discharge that smells not-good — along with significant pelvic pain and bleeding between periods. Luckily, PID can be treated with antibiotics, so talk to your doctor.
6. "You’re About To Get Your Period"
Some research has found that you may get more vaginal discharge right before you get your period. During this moment, your discharge can be whiter than usual. So if you notice this change in your lacies, your period might be close at hand.
7. "You’re Ovulating"
While you might get a bit more discharge in the time leading up to your period, you’ll definitely get a lot more when you ovulate. And I do mean a lot — 30 times more, in fact. And the amount isn’t the only thing that changes. As your body preps to usher those sperm up your reproductive canal, it strives to make everything super easy for those wee swimmers. The cervical mucus that you will notice as vaginal discharge is called “egg white cervical mucus” (no jokes, it has an acronym: EWCM) because it’s clear and stretchy, like egg whites.
So if you notice that when you try to wipe your discharge off yourself it springs back, you’re probably at the peak of your monthly fertility.
8. "You’re Pregnant"
There are a ton of bodily indicators that you’re pregnant. Lack of a period and sore breasts are of course indicators, but so is experiencing way more vaginal discharge than usual. This is because of the high levels of estrogen in your system when you're pregnant.
9. "You’re Just On Hormonal Birth Control"
If you’re taking hormonal birth control, you’re flooding your system with progestin. This synthetic hormone, in addition to doing its job stopping pregnancy from occurring, can overstimulate your cervix — resulting in lots of vaginal discharge.
This discharge can sometimes be brown in color. This is because the hormones in your birth control are working hard to stop your uterine lining from thickening every month, so no cells are invited to implant. You may have noticed this working since your period is probably way lighter than it was when you were on your normal cycle. But since you’re not having a full-on gushing period, some of your lining will stay inside you, where it mixes with your cervical mucus. When it comes out as vaginal discharge, it’s brown.
To stop this from happening, you can try hydrating a lot and taking your pill every day at the same time — because missed pills mess up your rhythm, which can cause your uterine lining to get upset. If it’s really bothering you, talk to your doctor about switching up your birth control method.
10. "You’re Turned On!"
Finally, my favorite. Sometimes you experience more vaginal discharge than usual because you’re simply excited and getting ready for a good time. Think of your vulva as getting all dressed up for a date. Lubrication is a critical component to pleasurable, chafe- and tear-free sex. So celebrate this wetness!
The Bottom Line
It would be great if all our parts could just holler at us and let us know, using their words, what they needed to feel better. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, but fortunately, our vulvas are more vocal than most parts. And their language of choice is most often discharge — if we take the time and gain the skills to understand it.
One thing to remember: many of these symptoms are shared by multiple health concerns, and even when there are very specific descriptors, it can be hard in the moment to know whether that discharge is more "cottage cheesy" or "foamy". If you are experiencing unusual vaginal secretions, go visit your doctor.