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Vaginal Discharge: What’s Normal?

May 20 2021, Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her)

If there’s one vaginal health topic that really makes people squirm, it’s discharge. Discharge always seems to have a reputation of being a “dirty word”. A word that feels unnatural. A word that makes voices turn quieter, cheeks turn rosier, and eyes grow wider. Today, the Marlow team is flipping the script. In this week’s blog post we are breaking down some of the stigma attached to this word; exploring what discharge is, why our bodies produce it, and how to identify changes in our discharge to promote vaginal health.

What is vaginal discharge? 

Vaginal discharge is fluid that is released through the vaginal opening. Discharge is made of various secretions, cells, and substances from the cervix, vaginal opening, vaginal surface, etc. 

Where does vaginal discharge come from?

The mixture of secretions, cells, and substances that make up vaginal discharge all help maintain your vaginal health, like preventing friction and promoting bacterial balance. Discharge is an integral part of regulating your vaginal ecosystem; without it, your vagina wouldn’t be able to self-clean. 

What does vaginal discharge look like? 

What is considered “normal” will differ slightly from person to person, so it’s always best practice to get comfortable with your body, and get to know your norm. As a general rule, vaginal discharge is clear or whitish in colour (potentially more cream, or yellow undertones depending on the individual) and has a wet consistency. Discharge often changes depending on your menstrual cycle, ranging from dry, to sticky, to slippery. 

Does vaginal discharge smell?

The smell of discharge is similar to the smell of vulvas in that no two are the same. For some, discharge may have a completely neutral smell or be odorless. For others, discharge may have more of a distinct, but mild smell. Typically, vaginal discharge does not have an unpleasant or foul smell - if it does, this may be indicative of an infection. Getting to know what’s normal for you is especially important here, as you can then easily identify when something changes!

How much vaginal discharge is normal?

As with many of our blogs, putting the label “normal” on anything is a challenge because everybody is different. In Dr. Jen Gunter’s book, “the Vagina Bible”, she says that over a 24-hour period, a normal amount of discharge can range from anywhere between 1-4 ml. Don’t be fooled by companies who sell vaginal-cleansing products and push the message that a clean vagina is a dry vagina… Discharge is normal and healthy!

What causes changes in vaginal discharge?

A number of things can impact how you discharge looks, smells, and feels. Here are a few things that may cause changes in your discharge:

  • Douching

  • New sexual partners 

  • Birth control

  • Sexually transmitted infections

  • Point of menstrual cycle

What is abnormal vaginal discharge?

Luckily, if changes in your discharge are caused by an infection it will likely be accompanied by other symptoms, making the issue easier to identify. Below is a list of the different colours of discharge and what they may indicate.

  • Clear, White, Cream, or Slightly Yellow-ish

This indicates that your vagina is healthy and in balance. As long as your discharge isn’t thick or lumpy, you have no reason to worry. If, however, it has a chunky consistency and smells off, this may be a sign of a yeast infection. If you have a yeast infection, you will likely also experience genital itching, redness, swelling or burning. This type of infection can usually be cleared up by using an over the counter cream or oral medication, but booking an appointment to see your physician is a great idea if you need peace of mind.  

  • Red-ish, Pink-ish or Brown-ish

This usually indicates that your discharge  is mixed with blood. This is completely normal around the time of ovulation, either during or after. Sometimes this type of discharge can be a sign of pregnancy, however if you are not experiencing any other symptoms, it is most likely not a cause for concern.

  • Yellow or Green

Yellow or green discharge is a symptom of Trichomoniasis, or trich for short: a sexually transmitted infection. If you have trich, you will likely also experience painful urination, itching, irritation and odor. In this case, definitely visit your physician's office to discuss treatment options as leaving this infection untreated can lead to an increase in risk of developing other STIs in the future, including HIV. 

  • Grey

Grey discharge can be a sign of Bacterial Vaginosis: a bacterial imbalance in the vagina. This colour of discharge will likely be accompanied by itching, irritation, and strong odor (usually fishy). If you suspect you have BV, don’t leave it unchecked. Like trich, untreated BV can leave you at higher risk of developing other STIs like genital herpes, chlamydia, pelvic inflammatory disease, gonorrhoea and HIV. Booking an appointment with a healthcare professional can save you from dealing with future - potentially more serious issues.

How to check vaginal discharge:

Get to know what’s normal for your body: is your discharge usually clear or white? Thinner or thicker? Odorless or mild? All of these questions will help you navigate through the changes in your vaginal ecosystem. If you do suspect something is abnormal or imbalanced, always seek out a professional opinion. While this blog post can act as a resource in a pinch, book regular appointments with your physician or gynaecologist in order to ensure that your vagina is in good health!