An Overview of Vaginal Discharge
Have you ever noticed that your underwear can sometimes look ‘bleached’? Or every once in a while you think you spontaneously got your period, only to run to the bathroom and realise it’s discharge?
This stuff is normal! Vaginal discharge is a positive sign that the vagina is doing its thing!
Discharge is a blanket term that means non-menstruation fluid that comes out of the vagina.
The fluid is made up of (1,2):
Cells and secretions from the vagina and cervix
Epithelial cells (cell layer that lines all internal and external organs)
Transudate (a water-like liquid that has leaked from nearby blood vessels into the vagina)
It is normal for the consistency, colour, and amount of vaginal discharge to change over the course of a menstrual cycle. Cervical mucus (or fluid) is the main contributor to vaginal discharge and changes throughout the menstrual cycle (1,2).
The quantity of cervical fluid typically increases as ovulation approaches (2,3). This creates a fertile window that provides an optimal environment for sperm to survive and travel to an egg in the ovaries (2). During this time, vaginal discharge can become a thicker, stickier consistency that is similar to the texture and appearance of raw egg white (4,5). A way to tell is if you have some between your thumb and pointer finger – when you open your fingers, does the fluid stay together and stretch, or ‘break’ with no attachment? If it stretches, it’s likely ovulation is approaching or recently occurred. As you move away from ovulation, the quantity of vaginal discharge decreases and consistency becomes more dry or tacky to reduce sperm motility into the reproductive tract (4). These factors both contribute to why you may feel more ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ during the day throughout the menstrual cycle. More questions about how all this works? – read our piece about the menstrual cycle.
The colour of your discharge can also change from a creamy white to more clear and eventually more brown as menstruation approaches. This brown-ish colour is the result of a process called oxidation where blood that has spent time outside the blood vessels interacts with oxygen. This typically occurs right before menstruation and at the end of menstruation. This brown colour isn't anything to be worried about given you are expecting a period. Discharge can also sometimes be a bit clumpy due to some dead cells - this is okay and totally normal.
If your vaginal discharge is accompanied with itching, burning, or a strange odour there may be something else going on (e.g., bacterial vaginosis). If you do experience these symptoms, we suggest you talk to your primary healthcare provider and check out our menstrual hygiene post to ensure you’re not irritating yourself further unintentionally! Some factors that can affect your discharge include (6):
Changes in your ovarian hormones*
Sexual activity (frequency, specific sexual practices, introduction of semen)**
Harmful hygiene practices (ex. douching)
Birth control or other contraceptives
Medications (ex. some anti-depressants)
Check out our work on bacterial vaginosis to learn about vaginal hygiene practices and be aware of what to look out for!
Overall, vaginal discharge is protective and typically the sign of a healthy vagina. It helps clear unwanted bacteria and remove dead or old cells, which protects against infection. Healthy, normal discharge is rarely a topic included in sexual education either formally through schooling or more informal discussions with parents, friends, or other guardians and mentors. We focus on all that can go wrong and forget to acknowledge the every-day occurrences. In doing this, we can also make the normal stuff stigmatized as well. It’s validating and important to talk about the regular stuff just as much as the abnormal.
So we’re here to tell you that daily vaginal discharge is normal and sometimes there’s a lot and sometimes it ‘stains’ your underwear and you’re not dirty because of it! When there is a larger volume of discharge you can use a panty liner to avoid discolouration on your underwear. This isn’t necessary, but something to consider if this aspect bothers you.
*Note: if you use hormonal birth control, your vaginal discharge may not follow the above-mentioned cyclical changes. Ovarian hormones, estrogen and progesterone play a large role in controlling the menstrual cycle along with the cervical fluid characteristics.
**There is no ‘right’ amount or kind of sex - if you’ve noticed something different with your vaginal discharge it may be related to sexual activity (but also may have nothing to do with this!). Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about this.
Powell AM, Nyirjesy P. New Perspectives on the Normal Vagina and Noninfectious Causes of Discharge. 2015; 58(3):453-463.
Ecochard Â, Bigelow JL, Dunson DB, Stanford JB, Gnoth C, Colombo B. Mucus observations in the fertile window : a better predictor of conception than timing of intercourse. 2004; 19(4):889-892. doi:10.1093/humrep/deh173
Daunter B, Khooz SK. Role of Cervical Mucus in Human Infertility. Published online 1984.
Bishop GB. Vaginal Discharge. In: Walker H, Hall W, Hurst J, eds. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd ed. ; 1990:807-809.
Sim M, Logan S, Goh L. Vaginal discharge : evaluation and management in primary care. 2020; 61(6):297-301.
Farage M, Miller K, Sobel J. Dynamics of the vaginal ecosystem—hormonal influences. Infect Dis Res Treat 2010; 3:1-15.