Sometimes we are not sure what's going on down there, but paying attention to your vaginal discharge can possibly save your life. Although it is a normal thing, it can also point to signs that you need to see a doctor. So when should you be concerned? We spoke to Dr. Patricia Mirwaldt, director of student health service at the University of British Columbia, to get the 4-1-1 on vaginal discharge.
What Is Vaginal Discharge?
Vaginal discharge is a normal part of our reproductive system. In fact, we start to get discharge once we start our periods. The purpose of discharge is to clear out dead cells and bacteria, according to WebMD. Normal discharge is usually clear or white. However, your discharge can change slightly, depending on the phase of your menstrual cycle, the amount of fluids you consume and the type of medication you're on (decongestants and antidepressants can dry out vaginal secretions, and antibiotics can change your discharge), says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Here is (generally) what to expect:
A couple of days after your period has ended, there will be little to no discharge. Later you’ll start to develop more (usually clear or “can look and be as stringy as egg whites," says Dr. Mirwaldt) and it will last 14 days until the next period. "And then the discharge tends to get thicker, hard to see through and more clumpy than stringy," says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Dr. Mirwaldt has many women come in to see her with concerns about the amount of discharge they are secreting. But she wants to let us know that you shouldn't be too concerned if you notice a difference in the volume of discharge.
A common reason could be the amount of sexual activity you are engaging in. “So for example, someone who is involved in a sexual relationship after not having been [sexual] for a few months, your discharge amount is going to change because sexual stimulation increases discharge,” says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Phew. So then when should we start to worry?
What Are Signs of Abnormal Discharge?
There are three things you should look out for: unfamiliar color, a bad smell or weird consistency. If any of these things are off, and are accompanied by pain, swelling, itching or redness, it may be a sign of something more serious.
Abnormal discharge could be a sign of one of the following:
A yeast infection is a fungal infection that is probably more common than we think. “Most women have experienced a yeast infection once in their lifetime. Some more often than that,” says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Our vaginas have a normal type and amount of yeast, fungus and bacteria. If it gets out of balance, it can create redness of the walls of the vagina and cause an odor, itchiness and thick, white and cottage cheese-esque discharge, she explains.
It can be treated with over-the-counter medications or prescription medication. The anti-fungal treatment can come in the form of a cream, ovul, or a pill (taken orally). They all take about the same time to work (3-5 days) and are around the same price. Check in with health services on your campus if you need to get a prescription. They can also test for a yeast infection with a pelvic exam, but you’ll often be prescribed medication without a test if you are experiencing symptoms because it is so common.
Any woman can get a yeast infection. “Fungal infections are not related to having had sex, so a woman who hasn’t had sex can get it,” says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Bacterial vaginosis is another infection (this time caused by bacteria) that can occur with or without sex.
If you notice white or gray or yellowish discharge, accompanied by a fishy scent, this may be a sign that you have bacterial vaginosis. If you also experience itching, burning, swelling and redness, get checked by a doctor. It might not itch as much as a yeast infection, but it can cause a general discomfort and discomfort during sex.
Bacterial vaginosis is diagnosed through a swab, which you can get done at health services.
If you have it, according to Dr. Mirwaldt, many women can clear it on their own if they’re not pregnant. It might last a week or two before going away without being treated.
“Sometimes vaginosis is persistent,” warns Dr. Mirwaldt. “If you have it for two or three weeks and it’s not going away, then we recommend [you get] a medication for it.” Once again, see a medical professional about an antibiotic to treat this.
Trichomonas is a common STI. Although the majority of people infected with trichomonas do not experience any signs or symptoms, some women experience vaginal discharge that could be an obvious sign of this STI. Look out for frothy discharge with a greenish color, accompanied by a strong, unpleasant (usually fishy) smell. However, some people experience a fishy odor, but do not always have trichomonas, says Dr. Mirwaldt.
Trichomonas is treated with an antibiotic metronidazole (usually taken for seven days). Dr. Mirwaldt recommends that if you are diagnosed with trichomonas, your partner should be tested and treated as well.
Gonorrhea another one of those tricky STIs that you can have without experiencing any symptoms. However, a common symptom is small amounts of a thicker, greenish yellow or sometimes bloody discharge. Other symptoms of gonorrhea also can include burning during urination, leaking urine and pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen, according to WebMD.
Dr. Mirwaldt warns that you cannot always rely on discharge to tell you whether or not you have gonorrhea. If you suspect you have it, you can get a swab or a urine test done.
It is also common that chlamidya also occurs with gonorrhea, so get tested for both.
Dr. Mirwaldt warns: “You shouldn’t wait for the signs to be tested. If you had sexual activity without protection it would be a good idea to check to see whether you have chlamidya or gonorrhea.”
Again, go to health services for an official diagnosis and to get treatment (antibiotic injection or oral antibiotics).
Usually bloody or brown discharge is a result of an irregular menstrual cycle. But sometimes it can be a sign of cervical cancer or endometrial cancer.
Brianna*, a student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, knows the importance of paying attention to any unusual discharge. Her mother, who was diagnosed with vaginal cancer, noticed something different about her discharge.
"That was the first symptom she noticed. Her discharge started to have a consistency more like urine. Shortly thereafter, she started to notice an odor to it as well,” says Brianna.
“Her doctor discounted these symptoms until she started spotting constantly, but had someone paid attention to what she noticed, her cancer would have been found and treated much sooner."
However, there’s no need to panic.
“In the student population, that’s really quite rare,” says Dr. Mirwaldt. “What we would be looking for is a precancerous condition and that would be an abnormal cell in your cervix, which is what we use a pap test to look for.”
It’s important to get a regular pap smear and tell your doctor if there is any pain or itching associated with discharge.
Tips On How to Avoid Abnormal Discharge
- We might love satin and lace panties, but a good way to prevent infection is by wearing cotton underwear. Also avoid tight underwear and tight jeans.
- Stay away from using douches or using any scented soaps. Bubble baths can also upset the balance of normal vaginal bacteria, which can cause infection and result in abnormal discharge. Instead, use mild soap.
- The best way to prevent STIs is to use condoms during sexual intercourse, and even during oral sex (gonorrhea can be contracted through oral sex).
- After urinating, wipe from the front to the back, instead of the back to the front. This will help prevent an infection by preventing bacteria from getting into the vagina.
If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s best to be safe and visit a doctor as soon as possible. It may be an embarrassing topic, but with your health at risk, it’s worth it to bring it up.
Dr. Mirwaldt advises avoiding euphemisms. It’s good to be specific and let the doctor know exactly what is going on. “If someone says, I’m itchy down-there,’ are they talking about their feet or are they talking about their vagina?”
The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t be embarrassed because your doctor is not. “Even though this is your first time talking about this, a physician or a nurse practitioner may deal with it everyday,” says Dr. Mirwaldt. Probably every other person who comes in will have this conversation with them, so we’re very comfortable talking about it. It’s just like an everyday occurrence for us.” So keep an eye on what’s going on, and stay safe!