Vaginal discharge is common in women. This is mostly normal and a sign that the vagina is working properly. Your vagina normally has an acidic pH to protect you from infection. A healthy vagina regularly excretes discharge, which in turn carries dead cells and bacteria out of the body. However, it is important to note that vaginal discharge can be a symptom of an infection or disease in certain cases. Distinguishing normal from abnormal discharge is key to maintaining a healthy vagina.
Table of Contents
- 1 Diagnose your vaginal discharge as normal
- 2 Examine your vaginal discharge
- 3 Have examinations and tests carried out
Diagnose your vaginal discharge as normal
Understand the function of vaginal discharge.
The vagina has a special inner wall containing glands that secrete small amounts of fluid daily. This regular, daily vaginal discharge aims to collect and flush old, dead cells and potential pathogens or “foreign objects” out of the vagina. In addition, this discharge promotes a healthy balance of bacteria and yeast that protect against infection. In other words, vaginal discharge is mostly good for you. The discharge is your body’s natural protective response. Women have normal discharge every 80 minutes during sleep. This is a normal bodily function (even men have an erection every 80 minutes while they are asleep).
Understand what normal vaginal discharge looks like.
Normal vaginal discharge is usually clear or milky white and has a mild odor, if any. It can be watery or thick and slimy, but the consistency should be relatively smooth and lump-free most of the time. Before menopause, it’s normal for women to have about a teaspoonful of white or clear vaginal discharge daily. However, the amount and characteristics of the discharge can vary from woman to woman.
Know the normal reasons why your discharge might change.
There are a few reasons your vaginal discharge may change slightly in appearance, smell, and texture. If you’re concerned about your discharge, go through this quick checklist to determine if any of the following conditions apply to you or have happened recently. Here are the most common but perfectly natural, reasons for a change in your vaginal discharge: Ovulation: During ovulation, your vaginal discharge usually increases in volume. It is clearer, stretchy and slippery. This is because the sperm should reach the egg more easily in the woman’s reproductive phase. Menses: Thick and white discharge often appears just before and after your menses. Pregnancy and after childbirth: Pregnant women often notice that they have more vaginal discharge and that its consistency changes. This is particularly noticeable in the last few weeks before giving birth, when the discharge becomes thicker and more frequent. After childbirth, women experience a discharge called lochial secretion or weekly discharge. This special discharge consists of blood and small clumps of sloughed tissue from the inside of the uterus that has accumulated during pregnancy. Over time, it will turn into a watery, pink discharge and slowly fade away. Menopause: The normal amount of vaginal discharge usually decreases during menopause as estrogen levels drop. Sexual Arousal : Watery discharge that is clear or slightly white is a sign of sexual arousal. The purpose of this discharge is to lubricate the vagina to protect it during intercourse.
Don’t worry about having to “flush” your normal vaginal discharge.
This discharge is your body’s natural protective response. Intimate douches are only advisable in very rare cases. If you don’t like the wet feeling of your underwear and clothes, you can consider gluing panty liners to your underwear. They are available in supermarkets, drugstores, pharmacies and convenience stores.
Examine your vaginal discharge
Examine the color and texture of your vaginal discharge.
If it looks different than your usual vaginal discharge, then chances are it’s not normal and is a symptom of an infection or a change in your vaginal environment. As a rule of thumb, if the discharge is neither clear nor white, there could be a problem. The most common symptoms of a medical condition include White, viscous, clumpy discharge that itches. Green frothy discharge. Greyish, yellowish, brownish or greenish discharge. Foul-smelling discharge. The discharge associated with pain, itching or burning, bleeding, etc. Discharge that is heavier or thicker than usual.
Assess your vaginal discharge.
After examining your discharge, you can now assess what conditions that cause abnormal discharge might apply to you. Suppose your discharge is not within the “normal” color and consistency range. In that case, one of the following problems could be the cause: Bacterial vaginosis: This is the most common cause of abnormal discharge in women of childbearing age. Bacterial vaginosis, also known as Gardnerella infection, amincolpitis, or Haemophilus vaginalis infection, is a mild vaginal infection caused by “bad” bacteria. Essentially, there are “good” and “bad” types of bacteria, with the “good” bacteria helping to regulate the growth of the “bad” ones. In bacterial vaginosis, this ratio is out of balance and there are too many “bad” bacteria. Symptoms include grayish-yellow, slimy, fishy-smelling discharge and itching or burning in the vagina. Discharge that smells bad is most often caused by bacterial vaginosis. Vaginal yeast infection or vaginal mycosis (vaginal thrush): If your discharge is white but thick and clumpy (think cottage cheese), this could be a sign of a yeast infection. In addition to the change in consistency and color, you may also notice an itchy or burning sensation. Yeast infections usually don’t have a strong smell. This infection is the second most common type of vaginal infection. They occur particularly frequently after a course of antibiotics or in women with diabetes or an immune deficiency.
Consider other causes of the unusual discharge.
Many things can affect the vaginal flora. Exposing the vagina to a new cleaning or hygiene product can negatively affect it. Chemicals in detergents and fabric softeners, intimate sprays, creams, douches and spermicides can irritate the vagina and/or the skin in the pubic area. Certain medications, such as antibiotics, can also increase the risk of infection. Any of these things can be responsible for changing your vaginal discharge. Think about what you’ve used/done lately and since your discharge seems different. Once you’ve narrowed down the potential culprits a bit, try to avoid them and see if the symptoms go away. For example, if you’ve recently started using a new detergent, avoid it for a while and return to using the old one instead. If your symptoms go away, you may have found the culprit. However, if symptoms persist even after you have ruled out any new chemicals recently introduced into your environment, you should see your doctor. Systemic diseases can also change the balance in the pubic area. For example, women with diabetes have a higher risk of fungal infections (such as yeast infections). A not-so-uncommon cause of the foul-smelling vaginal discharge is a tampon left in too long and forgotten.
Consult your gynecologist.
If, after your examination, you think your discharge is abnormal, see your gynecologist. While it’s good to pay attention to your body and how it’s changing, you shouldn’t rely solely on your self-diagnosis to confirm a particular illness. Let your doctor examine you, have the necessary tests performed, and let him/her decide what treatment is needed. An exception is if you have had a vaginal yeast infection before and you are confident in your ability to diagnose this infection yourself based on your previous experience. Vaginal thrush remedies are available over the counter in pharmacies and drugstores and can be used at home. However, if the infection is still present after your standard over-the-counter treatment for vaginal thrush, be sure to see your doctor.
Have examinations and tests carried out
Get an appointment with your gynecologist.
You should try to see your doctor as soon as you notice or suspect you have abnormal vaginal discharge. Prepare to describe the color, consistency, and frequency of your discharge. If you’re on your period, it’s best to wait until the end of your cycle before seeing a doctor. However, if you have serious symptoms, you should get checked out as soon as possible, even if you are menses. If you go to the ambulance or not to your usual doctor, be prepared to provide your entire medical history.
List all relevant circumstances and actions to your doctor.
For example, if you think you may be pregnant or have recently had unprotected sex (e.g. without a condom), you should inform your doctor.
Let the doctor examine you thoroughly, including a gynecological examination.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may choose between a small and full pelvic exam. A full exam includes an external and internal examination of the female genitals: The External Examination — Your gynecologist, will examine your vaginal opening and labia. He/she looks for unusual discharge, cysts, genital warts, irritation or other abnormalities. The Internal Exam (a) — The internal exam consists of two parts: the vaginal speculum exam and the two-handed exam. During the vaginal speculum exam, your doctor will gently insert a lubricated metal or plastic vaginal speculum into your vagina. The vaginal speculum spreads the walls of the vagina as it opens. This shouldn’t hurt, but it can feel a bit uncomfortable. Let your gynecologist know if you are in pain. He/she might change the size or position of the vaginal speculum. If the vaginal infection is severe, the Pap test, which is usually done at this time, may be delayed because the test results could be inaccurate. If so, you should return for the swab once the infection is gone. A swab involves inserting a small spatula or brush to take a small sample of the cells in your cervix. This sample will then be examined to see if there are any cancerous or pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. Your doctor may also take a sample of cervical discharge from your vagina to test for STDs. In addition, your doctor will measure your vaginal pH and take samples of your vaginal discharge. The Internal Exam (b) — For the second, two-handed exam, your doctor inserts one or two gloved and lubricated fingers into your vagina while gently pressing your lower abdomen with the other hand. This is a way to check the size, shape, and position of the uterus, ovary, and fallopian tubes, which can affect your fertility and health.
Have the samples shipped to a lab for testing.
After the exam, your doctor will send all cultures and samples to a laboratory for testing. The most important test of vaginal discharge samples is microscopic examination. During the microscopic examination, a medical technician laboratory assistant (MTLA) mixes the sample of vaginal discharge with a saline solution, takes a drop of this mixture, and places it on a slide for examination. This is mostly done in the doctor’s office, so the results are available immediately. The MTLA thoroughly examines the liquid on the slide for flagellates, clue cells, and yeast at both medium and high magnification. Trichomonads are fluid, flagellate-like organisms that their characteristic twisting motion can identify. Clue cells are unusual cells whose presence in the sample means that bacterial vaginosis is present. Yeast can be identified on the slide as bud-like or branching shapes, indicative of a yeast infection. A yeast infection can also be detected using the Pap test.
Wait for your test results.
Make sure to ask when you can expect the results so you can see the doctor in time to create a treatment plan, if necessary.