We all know that feeling. You’re sitting at your desk at work, out to dinner with friends or in the beginning stages of foreplay with your partner, and boom, moisture down there. It’s an experience all women have and one that’s often sexualized in popular culture. Truth be told though, it’s vaginal discharge, and most of the time, it’s totally normal. Even so, many females aren’t schooled on how to detect how healthy their vagina is, based on what it releases at various points during the month and within their lifetime.
As author and medical director at VSPOT Medi Spa, Dr. Carolyn DeLucia, MD, explains that our regular cycles release physiologic discharge. The main purpose of this substance is to ovulate and conceive, and will happen even when you aren’t trying to make a baby. Basically, it’s science. So what’s good about the gunk in your undies? And when is there reason to worry?
Here, the 101 guide to vaginal discharge:
Vaginal discharge should be white or pasty most of the time
The next time you’re a week away from your period’s arrival, give an extra glance to your discharge. Dr. DeLucia says it should be white and pasty, and maybe even a little thick. When you’re mid-cycle (psst: that’s when we ovulate), she says it’ll become clear and stretchy, which is meant to make it smoother for sperm to penetrate the egg.
“Afterwards, the progesterone levels begin to rise and the discharge thickens up again to protect the possibly developing fetus. If pregnancy does not occur then the body turns off the hormone flow and sheds the lining of the uterus which is our menstrual flow,” she explains.
Though the changes seem subtle, this is how your body is processing everything that’s happening under the hood. And all of it is driven by our hormones. As long as your cycle maintains white to clear texture, and is never chunky, there isn’t a reason to worry. Iin fact, signal that everything is peachy for your lady-bits.
Vaginal discharge should smell like, well, a vagina
One of the reasons we think about our discharge is because we catch a whiff of it sometimes. And, all too often, women are worried about their scent down there. How is it supposed to smell? Why doesn’t it smell like roses and rainbows? Should I be douching? Everyone’s delicate ecosystem is different, but more often than not, it’s not smart to disrupt the pH balance that keeps everything functioning. Instead of stressing over fragrance, Dr. Angela Jones, the resident OBGYN for Astroglide says a vagina should, well, smell like a vagina.
“Less is more when it comes to the vagina. For the most part, she’s got you covered. She doesn’t need any of those overly marketed lotions, potions, or elixirs,” she explains. “Frankly, she doesn’t even need soap. For those of you that aren’t so keen on that, if you do go with soap, make sure it’s scent and perfume-free.”
Vaginal discharge amount varies by woman—and age
The vagina is a ‘self-cleaning’ oven, according to Dr. Eliza Orzylowska DeBow, MD, the attending physician in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation.
The fluid from our glands carries away bad bacteria, allowing new cells to come to the surface, all in an effort to maintain health and elasticity. Even so, no two kitchen appliances are created the same way. And while your sister may experience heavy discharge, yours might be lighter. And your mom may not have much at all, since age causes many women to experience dryness downstairs.
“As a woman approaches menopause and estrogen levels decrease, so does the gland production and overturn of cells, so naturally the amount of discharge decreases,” she explains.
The key to understanding if it’s normal is considering your own body. How much do you typically release? Has it changed? If so, make an appointment to ensure everything is okay.
Vaginal discharge should never look like cottage cheese—or smell like fish
When something is awry with your lady-bits, she’ll start showing she’s in trouble via discharge. As Dr. DeLucia says, abnormal consistency is usually caused by a shift in the pH levels, leading to an environment that favors bacteria or yeast. When you see clumps that mimic cottage cheese and smell like the yeast you bake bread with, you likely have a yeast infection. This will be extremely itchy and uncomfortable, and will probably lead you to seek attention ASAP for relief.
On the other hand, Dr. DeLucia says a thin, greyish tint that wreaks like fish indicates a bacterial infestation. “When there is a bacterial infection present and you have unprotected sex, the combination releases an ammonia-like smell and is rather offensive. These infections and discharges are treatable, so no fear,” she reassures. To keep everything in order, Dr. DeLucia says a daily probiotic, or incorporating fermented foods and drinks into your routine can go a long way in protecting your genitals.