9 Secrets Your Vaginal Discharge Is Trying to Tell You
All that moisture is normal, but sometimes changes in odor, color, and consistency can be a sign that something else is going on in your body. Here's how to use its clues to work for you.
Your vagina tries to tell you a lot of things. And types of vaginal discharge naturally change throughout your cycle. It can be sticky, watery, or not really there. That fluctuation during the month is completely normal and dependent on your hormones at the time. “The vagina naturally cleans itself. Discharge is basically cells from the vagina and water,” says Kecia Gaither, MD, a double-board certified physician in ob-gyn and maternal-fetal medicine and director of maternal-fetal medicine at NYC Health+Hospitals in New York City. You’ve heard the phrase “the vagina is a self-cleaning oven”? That’s exactly right, she says. Healthy discharge is generally clear or milky in color.
Right around the time of ovulation, you may notice that your discharge turns to more of an egg-white consistency. “If you have a bit in between your fingers, you will be able to stretch the discharge when you move your fingers apart,” explains Dr. Gaither. (The technical term: spinnbarkeit.) This type of discharge is supremely sperm-friendly, allowing the swimmers the most hospitable environment to survive. “This is when your body is letting you know it’s a good time for fertilization,” she says. (Here are some other factors that affect your fertility.) Also, pay attention to the way it looks after ovulation. Brown vaginal discharge can be a sign of the implantation bleeding that happens when you’re pregnant.
Stress can throw your body for a loop in some surprising ways. “Stress can change the amount of mucous produced in your glands,” says Charles Ascher-Walsh, MD, director of gynecology and urogynecology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Stress may bring about these changes because it can alter your hormones and throw off your cycle. Travel, a new diet, or even dehydration may cause you to produce less discharge as well.
You have a thyroid issue
Take this one with caution, because a lack of discharge alone isn’t a reliable indicator that you have a thyroid problem, notes Dr. Ascher-Walsh. But having an under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism), can make lubrication sparse—and sex can hurt. (You may find your sex drive is lower as well.) If you notice dryness in combination with other symptoms of hypothyroidism, like feeling colder than normal, constipation, hair loss, fatigue or low energy and low mood, tell your doctor who may want to run a simple blood test to check your thyroid.
You’re going through menopause
“Vaginal dryness is one of the signs associated with the onset of menopause,” says Dr. Gaither. This happens when the lining of your vagina begins to thin, leading to a reduction in mucous production, and that can also make sex uncomfortable. And while the average age of menopause is 51, it can start to happen anywhere from ages 40 to 60, says Dr. Ascher-Walsh. If you’re nearing that age, make sure you’re up on the symptoms of perimenopause. “You shouldn’t panic if you’re 42 and you start to get vaginal dryness and hot flashes. It may be on the early side, but it wouldn’t be considered abnormal,” he says.
You have bacterial vaginosis
When it comes to type of vaginal discharge, this one isn’t pretty. A BV infection happens when there’s an imbalance of bacteria in your vagina, and can occur after sex. You may notice a watery consistency or gray discharge and a fishy odor. “You’ll know something is off,” says Dr. Gaither. After an exam with your doctor, BV is treated with antibiotics.
You have a yeast infection
Considering up to 75 percent of women will have a yeast infection in her lifetime, this is incredibly common. You’ll notice that your vaginal discharge has a thick, white, cottage cheese appearance, along with itching, says Dr. Gaither. If it’s your first yeast infection, you may want to check with your doctor to make sure that’s what it is (and not another type of infection). If you know you have a yeast infection, Dr. Gaither suggests picking up an OTC anti-yeast cream. If that doesn’t do the trick, see your doctor. “Some strains of yeast may be a little resistant to over-the-counter medications and might require something stronger,” she says. In the future, take steps to prevent yeast infections.
You have trichomoniasis
This STD often makes itself known, says Dr. Gaither. “Your discharge will be green,” she says. And—gross-out alert—she goes on to say that if you look at a smear of infected discharge under a microscope, you would notice little parasitic organisms swimming and moving around. That said, the CDC notes that only 30 percent of people experience trichomoniasis symptoms—for most, it totally goes unnoticed. Also pay attention to itching, burning, redness, or pain while you pee. Oral medication can clear it up.
“A lot of women stress that their discharge isn’t normal,” says Dr. Ascher-Walsh. But it’s perfectly fine for it to fluctuate each cycle and change as you get older. Usually, there’s nothing to worry about, particularly if you’re not guilty of one of the 15 things that can harm your vaginal health. “Unless something is bothersome about it, a simple change in discharge is typically not a problem,” he says. Take a deep breath: it’s probably all good.
- Kecia Gaither, MD, a double-board certified physician in ob/gyn and maternal-fetal medicine and director of maternal-fetal medicine at NYC Health+Hospitals, New York, NY
- Charles Ascher-Walsh, MD, director of gynecology and urogynecology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY
- CDC: "Trichomoniasis - CDC Fact Sheet"