Discharge – Know your Normal
Your guide to vaginal discharge by Helen Knox
As a sexual health nurse specialist, I often get asked ‘is this normal?’. Vaginal discharge is something women are often embarrassed to discuss, but can make them feel worried. Discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle in appearance and texture, and this guide will help you to recognise and understand these changes and spot anything unusual.
The vagina is a clever, self-cleaning passage and is a slightly acidic environment which keeps itself healthy in normal circumstances. It does this by producing different types of secretions at different points in the menstrual cycle. Women experiencing a normal cycle of vaginal discharge will notice the same pattern, cycle after cycle.
- A cycle starts with the first day of a period. Periods often last for 4-5 days and are often immediately followed by a slight dryness.
- Next, you may notice an increase in amount of vaginal discharge. This is often white in colour to begin with and then changes to be clear and stretchy in consistency. This is ‘fertile mucus’ (Spinnbarkeit – to use it’s technical name) and it’s made within the cervical canal. It is impossible to get pregnant without this clear, stretchy mucus – it really is amazing stuff. Sperm wiggle their way in to it and it nourishes them for up to seven days while they wait for ovulation (egg release). It gives them a route to travel through the cervix, into the uterus and to the fallopian tubes, to find an egg to fertilise.
- Once the egg has been released, your discharge changes again from clear and stretchy into dryer, thicker white or creamy types of mucus, which sperm cannot swim through. If fertilisation has taken place this mucus remains. If you’re not pregnant a period is triggered, which is the lining of the womb shedding away and the whole thing starts again a few days later.
Exact amounts and consistencies will vary from person to person but the cycle described above will take place in all women of reproductive age.
The vagina contains a delicate balance of micro-organisms, which work together to prevent infection and keep your vaginal pH slightly acidic as it should be. It’s important to maintain this balance – sometimes using products like bubble bath, scented soap, or douches, wearing thongs or tight clothing, or having unprotected sex, can disrupt the healthy bacterial balance, and the usual vaginal discharge can change. Watch out for any major changes in your discharge – if it smells particularly unpleasant or different to usual, if you notice a change in colour to grey or greenish yellow, or if it becomes particularly thin and watery or chunky like cottage cheese. These big changes could be a sign of infection.
If you notice any changes you can check your symptoms with our online symptom checker, designed by healthcare professionals and women who have experienced vaginal conditions, to help you find the right advice.