by Heather Corinna
Discharge and secretions from and of the vagina are a normal, healthy part of how that anatomy works and part of the reproductive system functioning, even if they somehow seem weird.
The vagina -- which is not the whole of that genitalia, called the vulva, but the flexible tube behind the vaginal opening and inside the body -- is a passageway between the outside of the body and the internal reproductive system. The pH balance of the vagina is acidic, with "good" bacteria that has co-evolved that helps keep infections away. Vaginal secretions are how the vagina cleanses and regulates itself -- how amazing is that? -- in the same sort of way that saliva helps keep our mouths clean and healthy.
- is clear and thin -- that sort of discharge usually occurs around ovulation, and vaginal secretions during sexual arousal may also have this appearance
- is white or slightly yellowish and thick (but does NOT have curdy "chunks") -- much like the consistency of paste, this sort of discharge tends to occur during less fertile times in the monthly cycle
- has a mild but not unpleasant odor or scent
- may have a brown tint just before or just after menses.
- is generally moderate -- not too profuse or too scanty
- will appear on your underpants, or on your inner labia a lot of the time
Normal discharge is just that: normal. It's not anything to be scared or embarrassed about, there's nothing wrong with it, and vaginas need it around to stay healthy. We don't worry about the saliva that's in our mouths, or worry it might be gross, and the same goes here. Without these discharges, we'd have some problems -- infections more often, uncomfortable sex and the vagina would start to smell pretty darn funky, just like our mouths do when they don't stay clean and hydrated. We need all this slippery stuff.
Discharge that is NOT normal, but a likely signal of infection or illness may:
- be chunky or very heavy, with small curds like cottage cheese
- be very watery, or consistently profuse
- have a strong odor
- be grayish, greenish, yellow or pinkish
The above sorts of discharge can be due to an infection like bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection, or to an STI, like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis or chlamydia. In addition, any itching, burning, pain or discomfort -- during urination, sexual activity, or just in daily life -- are also signs of an infection. Some vaginal infections are sexually transmitted via manual, oral, vaginal sex (or anal sex, if vaginal sex was also had with the same condom or with no condom), and that transmission is not limited to heterosexual activity: infections are something all kinds of partners can contract and transmit in a bunch of different ways.
Do know that it's normal for there to be days the vagina seems "not-so-fresh" when it comes to odors or discharges without anything being Big-Time Wrong. While the vagina cleans itself, that process and cycle tends to take a few days at a time. Sometimes we won't have infections, but may have temporary imbalances -- due to diet, stress, hormone levels, soaps, spermicides, semen (if a partner with a penis has recently ejaculated into the vagina, it's normal for it to smell a bit off for a couple days) -- that resolve themselves just fine. What you want to keep an eye out for are differences to scent, color and texture that show up and stick around for more than a few days, or which are causing you any physical discomfort.
If you have any of the above sorts of abnormal discharge for more than a few days, or related symptoms, please see your gynecologist or doctor.
How do you avoid vaginal infections, or stop the cycle of chronic infections?
- Avoid spreading germs from the rectum to the vagina. When urinating or after bowel movements, always wipe from front to back. Wash your hands before and after you masturbate.
- Use good general hygiene, making sure to wash the labia daily with a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser, and keep the area dry.
Don't forget... if you're having penis-in-vagina intercourse
without using a condom, know that semen substantially alters the pH of the vagina (our stuff is alkaline, and their stuff buffers that, which is great for reproduction, but not so wonderful for keeping the vagina in balance). So, it's normal to have your discharges or scents -- when people experience "fishy" smelling vaginas, and it isn't BV, it's often simply residual semen -- be a bit different for a few days, just from that alone. But if those changes last more than a few days, it's probably something else.
- Use gentle soaps when washing, without fragrances. Deodorant soaps, perfumed bodywashes, "feminine hygiene" sprays, or fragranced toilet paper or tampons should NOT be used on the vulva to maintain optimum vaginal health.
- Do NOT douche. Studies show that douching at least once a month over makes people 40% more likely to have a vaginal infection than those who never douche. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Douches are not only unnecessary, they disrupt the bacterial balance of the vagina and the self-cleaning cycle. Research has also linked douching to an increased risk of HIV and other STIs as well as cervical cancer.
- Avoid tight pants, panties, or panty hose without a cotton crotch, and other clothing that can trap moisture. Comfortable natural-fiber clothing is always your best bet.
- Try to use some of Mama Nature's great preventatives. Have fresh garlic in your diet, drink acidic juice like cranberry or pomegranate, and try and eat a live, not-sugary yogurt (soy yogurt counts) or take an acidophilus supplement daily. These things can help keep the vaginal climate more resistant to infections.
- Do not try and self-medicate (with over-the-counter treatments) or take someone else's medication for an infection. Not only may it not work while your infection gets worse, you may end up giving yourself an infection that you didn't even have to begin with. Yikes!
- Practice safer sex for manual, oral, anal and vaginal sex.
- Use water-based lubricants with low or no glycerine. Avoid spermicides or spermicidally-lubricated condoms.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet, and avoid processed foods, simple carbs and lots of carbonated sodas. Take good care of yourself.
- If you are being treated for an infection, be sure to take all your medication to the end, as directed, and abstain from sexual activities until you are fully well. In addition, avoid using tampons while infected -- if you are menstruating or have excessive discharge, use cotton pads instead.
- Be sure that when diagnosed with an infection, you ask your doctor if your partner will also need treatment and a checkup. Things like yeast infections can be passed back and forth between partners of all genders, so making sure you both get treated in some cases, AND practicing safer sex -- always -- is a must.
- Do not let possible infections go untreated. If you suspect an infection, get to your doctor or gynecologist as soon as possible. Untreated infections can make you more inclined to catch OTHER infections, can spread to other areas of your body, and can also put you at risk of developing conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can profoundly impact your long-term reproductive health.
written 23 Nov 2002 . updated 27 Nov 2012