Vaginal discharge, vaginal mucus, vaginal secretions…whatever you call it, it’s a normal part of being female.
Even so, there aren’t many women around who haven’t wondered at some stage whether their vaginal discharge is normal.
But how do you tell if your vaginal discharge is normal? It’s not exactly something you discuss in everyday conversation.
If you have discharge that you’re concerned about, you should discuss this with your health professional. However, I’ve put together a few tips to figure out whether it’s likely to be normal or not.
In your reproductive years (that is, between puberty and menopause) it is normal to have cyclical changes in vaginal discharge.
This is because rising oestrogen levels lead to the cervix producing mucus to nourish and protect the sperm to help them travel the distance to the fallopian tubes, to help fertilise the egg. Whether you want a pregnancy at the time or not doesn’t affect the fact that you produce fertile mucus during a part of your cycle (usually for several days around 2 weeks before your period). This cervical mucus trickles down to the entrance to your vagina, where you experience is as vaginal discharge. However, it is technically known as mucus, to distinguish it from other types of vaginal discharge that do not come from the cervix. As a general rule (with exceptions!), fertile mucus tends to be thinner, clearer, stretchier and wetter than other types of discharge. Cervical mucus is an important part of your fertility, and a healthy sign. Cervical mucus is no longer produced when you are no longer fertile.
After menopause, you will not experience cyclical changes in vaginal secretions anymore.
You would expect any discharge (if you have it) to be fairly similar day after day when you are no longer ovulating.
Cervical mucus can be affected by a lot of things, including being on the Pill, surgery to the cervix (e.g. for abnormal cells or CIN), and terminations. These things may result in a reduction in the amount or type of mucus your cervix produces, or it may change from being cyclical to being constant. When this occurs, your cervix is not at its most healthy, and its function is being affected. A lack of the cervical mucus (that is, the cyclical production of mucus, which increases over several days two weeks before your period, and has fertile characteristics) is a sign of your fertility being compromised. The Mini-Pill works in exactly this way for contraception: it changes the quality of the mucus to make it unfriendly to sperm, resulting in rapid death of the sperm, as occurs in the usual non-fertile times of your cycle.
Non-fertile discharge doesn’t come from the cervix, but rather the walls of the vagina. This vaginal discharge occurs in many women in the early part of the cycle. In the early part of your cycle, before your fertile time, this discharge (if you do have it) is normally the same day after day. It is not until oestrogen starts to stimulate your cervix to produce mucus that your experience of vaginal discharge changes. Vaginal discharge is due to circulation changes, as well as normal cell turnover by the healthy cells of your vagina.
Vaginal secretions are also produced when you are sexually excited or stimulated. These secretions are produced from a number of places: the vaginal walls, due to an increased blood flow to your sexual organs; glands called the Bartholin’s glands, around the vaginal entrance; and possibly the Skene’s glands, which are around the entrance to the urethra. Other things that increase the circulation to the vagina can result in an increase in discharge, such as a Pap Smear.
Normal vaginal secretions, whether mucus or discharge, is white, yellowish or clear, and has a faint musky smell. Vaginal secretions of a different colour, or odour, or accompanied by symptoms such as vulval or vaginal itching, pain with passing urine, or pelvic pain, should be investigated by your doctor.
Vaginal discharge that is new or different to what you have previously experienced may warrant investigation.
This is especially the case when it cannot be explained by a change in circumstances, such as starting or stopping chemical or physical contraception such as the Pill or an IUD, including the Mirena; changing time of your cycle; or new phase of life, such as pregnancy or menopause.
It’s a helpful skill to know how to spot what is normal for you with your discharge. An excellent way of doing this is learning to chart changes through your cycle. Teachers of the Billings Ovulation Method tend to be experts in vaginal discharge – or rather, very good at helping women become experts in their own discharge. This is because it is a natural method of contraception, of promoting pregnancy, and of monitoring reproductive health, which is based on the woman’s experience of moisture at the vulva (the entrance to the vagina). Although the primary focus of this method is on the sensations of moisture you experience, it encompasses increased insight into the vaginal discharge as a whole, and is an excellent method for all women of reproductive age to learn, as part of knowledge of their bodies.
In summary, vaginal discharge is usually normal if it:
- Follows a cyclical pattern that can be related to your hormonal changes (this may require the help of an Accredited Billings Ovulation Method Teacher, such as myself, to interpret)
- Does not have an offensive smell or unusual colour, and is not associated with symptoms such as itching, pain with passing urine or pelvic pain in general
- Does not suddenly change without explanation, in quality, colour or amount
For help with interpreting your vaginal discharge, contact us at Equilibria.