If you start typing “normal” in a Google search or Yahoo! Answers, one of the very first (if not the absolute first) autofill results is “vaginal discharge.” For something that gynecologists say every single woman of reproductive age has, the stuff that comes out of your vagina (your healthy vagina, by the way) causes a lot of concern.
I could present a ton of theories as to why something as private and normal as discharge is subject to so much scrutiny, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just chalk it up to misogyny and the fact that nothing about the vagina can ever just be left the hell alone. To debunk some of the mystery surrounding the contents of yourpanties, Cosmopolitan.com consulted two experts for a thorough breakdown of what constitutes “normal” vaginal discharge.
REPEAT AFTER ME: EVERY VAGINA HAS DISCHARGE
Let’s just get this out of the way right here, right now. If you have a vagina and are of reproductive age, you have discharge and it is fine that you have it. Both Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in Westchester County, and Rebecca Brightman, an ob-gyn in New York City, seriously emphasized this point in separate interviews with Cosmopolitan.com. “All women in the reproductive age group have vaginal discharge,” Dr. Brightman said. “It’s normal. It’s not normal if you don’t have it. All women have it, to some extent.”
Different women experience different volumes of discharge. Vaginal discharge is a spectrum, a rich tapestry. No two vaginas spew forth the same liquids. So just as it’s normal for your panties to look like you sneezed in them (like Amy Schumer joked in her Apollo special), it’s also normal for them to be fairly dry, depending on where you are in your cycle. Isn’t the world a beautiful place?
As Dr. Dweck explained, you’re most likely to experience discharge during ovulation. “Most healthy, reproductive-aged women are going to, at the very least, have some sort of discharge during ovulation,” she said. “This is nature’s way of producing mucous to facilitate pregnancy during the middle of the cycle when you’re ovulating.” Mucous and vagina might be two words you don’t want to associate with one another, but this is how bodies work. That mucous (which comes out of your vagina and lands in your panties throughout the day) is extra voluminous during ovulation because it helps sperm get where it needs to go and makes sex more enjoyable during the time of the month you’re most likely to get pregnant. Dr. Dweck said that if you’re consistently dry, especially during ovulation, it might be worth a call to your gynecologist, just to make sure nothing is wrong with your “ovulation mechanism.”
Some women might experience an annoying volume of discharge — it all depends on how much cervical mucous you have, and how thick it is — and might consider wearing a pantyliner to take control of the situation. This is all right, but both Dr. Brightman and Dr. Dweck warned against wearing a liner every single day. Because their function is to shield liquid from seeping through, liners don’t tend to allow your vagina to breathe as much as it would in a pair of cotton panties. That lack of air can be conducive to yeast or bacterial infections, which yield a whole slew of discharge issues. If you’re experiencing a volume of discharge that makes you uncomfortable, or makes your day more difficult than it needs to be, you should call your gynecologist.
WHAT YOUR DISCHARGE SHOULD LOOK (AND SMELL) LIKE
Something fun about the way vaginas work is that they get wet with arousal, so you might have this sort of clear, generally scentless discharge on any given day. But things change throughout your menstrual cycle. “When people approach mid-cycle, the mucous is very stretchy and clear,” Dr. Brightman said, “and as you ovulate, it becomes thicker and more opaque.”
This discharge should not come with any itching or burning. But because your pelvis is a sweaty place, and the mucous is coming from inside your body, it may have a slight odor. As Broadly reported, the smell will probably be a bit sour (because the vagina’s natural pH is a bit acidic) and musty (because sweat). So don’t rush to the conclusion that something is wrong with you or that you’re gross just because your cervical mucous doesn’t smell like Chanel No. 5.
WHEN YOUR VAGINAL DISCHARGE IS TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING
While it’s totally fine and normal and good and healthy to have some amount of discharge, it can also be a sign of something going awry in your vagina. “What’s not normal is having a horrible, fishy odor from the vagina with the drainage,” Dr. Dweck said. “That typically signifies an imbalance or infection of some sort.”
Dr. Dweck and Dr. Brightman warned that a strong, fishy odor is usually a sign of a bacterial infection — so if you or a partner notice your scent is especially off one day, you should call your gynecologist to see about being examined and treated. That fishy-smelling discharge that signifies a bacterial infection may also be gray in hue. Something else that should raise a flag to call your doctor would be white, lumpy, “cottage cheesy discharge,” warned Dr. Brightman, which usually signifies a yeast infection. Dr. Dweck said that discharge might also sometimes have a “greenish hue” to it.
In most cases, a yeast infection will also come with itching or burning, but there are cases in which the abnormal discharge is the first or only symptom. Yeast infection treatments (like Monistat) can often be bought over the counter, without a doctor’s visit, but if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse after an OTC treatment, you should see your doctor.
Some STIs (chlamydia and gonorrhea) also cause abnormal discharge and come with pelvic pain, so Dr. Brightman said if you’re experiencing any pain or burning at all with your discharge, you should see a doctor to rule out the possibility of an STI you might pass along to someone else or let camp out in your own body to get worse over time.
If you’re experiencing discharge with blood in it, and it’s more than just regular spotting or comes with pain, you should also give your doctor a call.
And then one thing that can commonly cause weird discharge is irritation to products you’re using. Depending on how your skin personally reacts to different things, irritation could be caused by something scented you’re using to combat perceived smelliness, or by something for sensitive skin you assumed would be safe. The best route, when it comes to keeping your vagina clean, is to just leave it TF alone and let it clean itself, as it’s made to do. Dr. Brightman said the best way to keep your vagina (and discharge) healthy is by “either doing nothing, or perhaps taking a probiotic.”
“The best thing is to leave everything alone,” Dr. Brightman said. “Don’t use over-the-counter cleansers, don’t use douches. The vagina has a way of cleaning itself. If you really think it’s that gross, you should see your doctor.”