What is vaginal discharge?
The menstrual cycle refers to the monthly changes a woman’s body goes through to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy. Once a month, the ovaries release an egg in a process known as ovulation. While this is happening, hormonal changes get the uterus ready for hosting a fertilized egg.
If the egg is not fertilized by sperm, the uterine lining is shed through the vagina. This is the part of the cycle referred to as the period, or menstruation. However, this is not the only part of the cycle that involves vaginal discharge.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, though it can last anywhere from 21 to 35 days. The cycle is considered to begin on the first day of the period, rather than the last.
There are four phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Menses. This phase usually lasts for one to five days and is when the uterine lining is shed. Bleeding typically lasts for three to five days.
- Follicular phase. During this phase, estrogen levels rise and cause the endometrium, or uterine lining, to thicken. Follicles, or the beginnings of egg cells, begin to grow, with one maturing into an egg. This phase usually lasts from days six to 14 of the cycle.
- Ovulation. An increase in a hormone known as luteinizing hormone leads to the release of a mature egg from one of the ovaries. This phase happens on about day 14 of an average 28-day cycle. It is also at this stage where you will begin to notice more vaginal discharge.
- Luteal phase.The egg begins to travel to the uterus through the fallopian tubes. If sperm fertilizes the egg and the egg attaches to the uterus, pregnancy is the result. If fertilization does not happen, hormone levels drop and the body prepares for menses. This phase happens from days 15 to 28.
Signs of vaginal discharge
It’s normal for a certain amount of fluid to flow out of the vaginal opening during the menstrual cycle. This vaginal discharge, also known as cervical mucus, helps keep the vagina clean and is generally clear or milky white and thin.
Vaginal discharge varies throughout the menstrual cycle and indicates various stages of fertility. You may notice a change in cervical mucus around the time of ovulation, when estrogen levels rise to help release an egg. Fertility may be highest when the texture of the mucus resembles a raw egg white, as this may help sperm reach the egg.
Up to 30 times more mucus is produced before ovulation than after ovulation. Different types of discharge are associated with different phases of the menstrual cycle, including:
- Thick, white discharge. This indicates that you are near the beginning or end of the menstrual cycle.
- Clear, stretchy discharge. This indicates that you are ovulating.
- Clear, watery discharge. This occurs at other times of the menstrual cycle.
- Brown discharge. This may occur immediately after a period and is a sign of your vagina being cleared out.
- Yellow or green discharge. This may indicate an infection, particularly if it’s thick or smells different than usual.
Causes of vaginal discharge
A certain amount of vaginal discharge from your body is normal for both menstruation and regular vaginal health. This discharge is usually milky and doesn’t smell bad. In addition to changes around the time of ovulation, vaginal discharge can become thicker when you are breastfeeding or sexually aroused.
However, changes in vaginal discharge can be a sign of a problem. Increased discharge or a change in the smell or color — along with burning or irritation around your vagina — can be signs of vaginitis, or an inflammation of the vagina. This is most often caused by an infection or a change in vaginal bacteria.
Spotting, or light bleeding between periods, can also indicate a health issue. Spotting may be red or brown and may be accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain, an irregular period, or burning during urination.
Changes in vaginal discharge can also occur due to:
When to see a doctor for vaginal discharge
Any changes in vaginal discharge — including color, smell, or volume — are cause to see a doctor. You should also contact your health care provider if you experience any of the following:
- Your period suddenly stops
- You’re experiencing severe pain during your period
- You’re experiencing spotting, or bleeding, between periods
- You’re bleeding more often or more heavily
Diagnosis for vaginal discharge
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, your doctor will need to perform an examination to determine what might be wrong. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and perform a pelvic exam to look for discharge or swelling.
Your doctor will most likely be looking for one of the following:
Treatments for vaginal discharge
Bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis are treated by antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams, though a doctor may change the treatment if symptoms don’t improve.
The following may help prevent abnormal vaginal discharge:
- Wiping from front to back after using the bathroom
- Wearing breathable cotton underpants and avoiding tight articles of clothing
- Avoiding hot tubs
- Not douching
- Avoiding feminine hygiene sprays
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Cleveland Clinic: "Normal Menstruation."
Harvard Medical School: "Vaginal Discharge."
Mayo Clinic: "Menstrual cycle: What's normal, what's not."
Mayo Clinic: "Vaginitis."
Sutter Health: "Vaginal Discharge."