Having a vagina can be a messy affair, and a discharge cycle is a big part of that. Vaginal discharge (also referred to as ‘leukorrhea’) is the umbrella term used to describe the fluids that come out of the vagina. These fluids are largely made up of cervical mucus, vaginal fluid, and bacteria.
Is vaginal discharge normal?
Although many of us are lead to believe that vaginal discharge is bad, most of the time it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a healthy bodily function that indicates your vagina is doing it’s thing and cleaning itself.
The consistency, quantity and colour changes throughout your cycle are typically in response to hormonal fluctuations (for example, you may routinely experience discharge before your period arrives).
Healthy vaginal discharge colours range from white to clear, and the consistency might be anything from thick to slippery.
Vaginal discharge isn’t usually a ‘bad’ thing
Gentle reminder: discharge is not an indication that your vagina is “dirty”, or that it needs internal cleaning with douches, vaginal steams, or washes.
All of these things will disrupt your vaginal microbiome and potentially cause unhealthy changes in your discharge.
Your vaginal discharge can tell you a lot about your health, fertility, and whether you’ve contracted an infection (including some forms of STIs).
Getting to know your vaginal discharge makes it that much easier to spot when something’s not quite right. You just have to know what’s normal for your body – and when you should your GP .
Stages of vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge is a creature of habit that follows a fairly predictable pattern. In fact, cyclical changes in the way your discharge looks and feels is a great way to determine which phase of the menstrual cycle you’re in.
Note: If you take hormonal contraception, you’re less likely to notice a change in your discharge. This is because the levels in your hormones (ie. oestrogen and progesterone) are more constant compared to people not taking hormonal contraception.
Here is how your vaginal discharge changes throughout each phase of the menstrual cycle, and how to spot healthy vs. unhealthy discharge.
Discharge during menstruation
During the menstrual phase (aka your period), the blood flow mixes with your mucus. You probably won’t notice any discharge. In the following days, the amount of vaginal discharge you produce is very little – and might even be completely absent.
If it’s brown, don’t worry: That’s usually from your uterus expelling old, leftover blood from your period.
Discharge before ovulation
In the days leading up to ovulation (during the follicular phase), oestrogen levels start to rise and your cervix starts producing more mucus. Many people experience milky white discharge at this stage: thick and creamy consistency, and white or cloudy in colour.
While you’re still outside of your fertile window, your vaginal mucus is intentionally thick to intercept any sperm trying to reach your uterus.
Some tenacious swimmers may still make it through and – since sperm can live in your body for up to five days – you should probably use a condom or other contraceptive method (unless you’re trying to conceive).
Discharge during ovulation
Ovulation is when you produce the most discharge. Don’t be alarmed if you feel “wetter” than usual. Oestrogen levels typically peak one to two days before ovulation, so vaginal discharge will resemble raw egg whites: clear, slippery and stretchy.
If your discharge can be stretched between your index finger and thumb, you’re ovulating! It’s a telltale sign that there’s an egg ready to be fertilised, and the watery consistency of your cervical mucus is intended to facilitate sperm reaching an egg.
Cervical mucus provides sperm a more hospitable home than the vagina’s usual acidic environment, allowing these swimmers to survive for longer periods.
Discharge during the luteal phase
Right after ovulation, you may notice a fairly dramatic change in the quantity and texture of your discharge. Luteal discharge might feel sticky, dry, or may be completely absent.
Progesterone peaks to support a potential pregnancy, inhibiting the secretion of cervical mucus and acting as a barrier to stop sperm from entering the upper reproductive tract.
Thicker mucus also prevents bacteria, fungi, and infections from reaching the uterus while the fertilised egg is implanting (and your immune system function is dampened).
How to spot unhealthy vaginal discharge
Discharge is highly contingent on where you are in your menstrual cycle, so it’s normal for it to change in volume, colour and consistency. There are, however, a few caveats.
Abnormal vaginal discharge colour and texture
Unhealthy vaginal discharge can be recognised through drastic changes in colour and texture.
Green, grey and frothy discharge is often caused by an STI called trichomoniasis. This infection is usually accompanied by burning and irritation.
Thrush or Chlamydia
Discharge that is lumpy and curdled (like cottage cheese), could signal the presence of thrush. Symptoms of chlamydia, however, can often mimic those of thrush.
If you notice a white discharge with itching, burning or painful urination, it’s a good idea to visit your GP or local sexual health clinic.
This is especially important if you’ve recently had unprotected sex (or are due for your STI check-up) if you notice a thrush-like vaginal discharge.
Vaginal discharge with odour
A drastic change is smell is one of the easiest ways to detect the presence of infections, and it’s why many gynaecologists often perform a “sniff test”.
Normal vaginal discharge is rarely completely odourless, but stronger or fishy-smelling is a common symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV).
To protect your vagina from infections like thrush and BV, NHS doctors recommend you incorporate probiotics into your regime. Daye's ProViotics are clinically proven to strengthen your vaginal microbiome so it can fight off harmful bacteria.
The smell can become stronger following your period, as well as after unprotected sexual intercourse. It may be accompanied by greyish discharge. Though BV is not an STI, it can put you at higher risk of contracting one.
Don’t be afraid to be acquainted with the normal smell of your discharge. We’re absolutely saying you should smell your underwear every so often!
- Vaginal discharge is normal, and changes, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle.
- Hormonal birth control, STIs and vaginal infections (e.g. thrush, bacterial vaginosis) can affect the quantity, colour, texture and smell of your discharge.
- Immediately before and after your period, you produce less vaginal discharge. This is typically thick and tacky in texture. It can be white or yellowish in colour. It’s common to experience “dry days” in these phases.
- Vaginal discharge is mainly made up of cervical mucus, and you produce more of it immediately before and during ovulation. This is when your discharge will be clear and slippier, to help the passage of sperm. These “wetter” days are when you are the most fertile.
- Vaginal discharge that is grey or green, looks like cottage cheese, or smells foul might be a sign of infection. That goes double if you experience pain, burning or itching.