What your vaginal discharge is trying to tell you
If you’re anything like me, you don’t think about your vaginal discharge often. However, discharge can give you information about what is going on in your body. Between the smell, texture, and changes you notice throughout your cycle, your discharge is usually trying to tell you something important about your body and general wellness.
What is discharge?
Vaginal discharge, AKA vaginal secretions, is fluid produced by glands inside your vagina and cervix. Discharge isn’t just normal, it’s necessary. Vaginal discharge keeps your vagina healthy and clean by cleansing old cells that line your vagina.
The discharge also flushes any unwanted bacteria out of the body to protect against infections such as yeast infections. By acting as a natural lubricant, discharge keeps the mucous membranes in your vagina moist and prevents them from tearing and forming sores. Most of you will start noticing discharge for the first time about six months to one year before getting your first period. This is due to changing hormone levels and your body preparing itself to produce eggs.
Before we get into your common questions, we wanted to share some disclaimers. First, having a slight vaginal odor is normal most of the time and not a cause for concern. Second, if you experience a strong vaginal odor (often described as “fishy”) or unique texture along with symptoms of burning or itching, contact your primary care provider for further advice.
Odor of discharge
Discharge isn’t meant to smell like flowers. One of the functions that the good bacteria has is to keep the vagina’s pH balance, AKA how acidic the vagina is, at an even level. The primary bacteria responsible for vaginal pH balance is lactic acid, which causes the scent of your discharge.
Everyone’s discharge is different. If your pH balance is off and your vagina smells tangy or fermented, your discharge might be too acidic. Things like scented products, too much moisture, and non-breathable clothing can affect your pH balance. A bacteria called Lactobacilli normally dominate a healthy vagina and can also be found in foods like yogurt, sourdough bread, and IPAs. Consuming food and drinks with lactobacilli increases the amount of acid in your body and can lead to a tangy smell in your discharge. Having a tangy smell in your discharge is very common and not something to worry about.
Sometimes, vaginal discharge can have a coppery scent, like coins. Usually, this smell is nothing to worry about. It likely happens during or after your period, as blood contains a lot of iron which has a metallic smell. You might also notice this scent after sex, as vaginal bleeding sometimes occurs as a result of sex. If the bleeding continues long after your period or sex, or it becomes itchy, it’s best to see your doctor.
A build-up of urine around your underwear or vulva might leave your discharge smelling like bleach or chemicals. Urine contains something called urea, a byproduct of ammonia that smells like chemicals. It’s likely that this smell is a result of dehydration. Try to drink a lot of water and keep your body hydrated, if the smell is accompanied by other symptoms, be sure to check in with your doctor.
A body odor or herbal smell in your vaginal discharge has been linked to emotional stress. There are two types of sweat glands in your body: apocrine and eccrine. Eccrine glands are found in your skin, palms, and soles and work to maintain your body temperature. Apocrine glands work by responding to norepinephrine, which is involved in emotional processing, and populate armpits and groin. So, if you are under a lot of emotional stress, these glands will be active, producing sweat in the vaginal area and causing this scent.
If your discharge smells fishy, you might have bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis. Bacterial vaginosis is a result of an imbalance of the bacteria in your vagina and can be caused by new or multiple sexual partners, as well as a natural lack of lactobacilli bacteria. Trichomoniasis is a very common sexually transmitted infection that causes itching and painful urination. If you notice a fishy smell in your discharge, talk to your primary care physician about treatment options.
Texture of discharge
You’ll also notice changes in the texture and color of your vaginal discharge. Your body produces the least amount of discharge at the beginning of your cycle, right after your period, and might be more dry and sticky. During the first phase of your cycle (follicular phase), it will become more creamy. During ovulation, your discharge will be wet and transparent, kind of like an egg white. This is a good way to tell if you’re ovulating. After ovulation, it will likely return to the dry, sticky texture. This is known as your luteal phase and is when the progesterone hormone peaks in your body, turning your discharge from clear to white.
These changes in the texture of your discharge are caused by cervical fluid produced by glands in the cervix. The consistency and volume of cervical fluid produced changes as your reproductive hormones change. Your cervical fluid changes at different points in your cycle to make it difficult or easy for sperm to reach your uterus. So, during ovulation, the stretchy, egg-like texture of the fluid makes it easy for sperm to swim through.
When to be concerned
Abnormal discharge is usually the result of a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or an STI. Again, if you notice any itching, burning, or irritation with your discharge, it could be a yeast infection. Bacterial vaginosis will produce a grayish colored discharge with a fishy smell and you may feel genital pain, itching, or burning. With trichomoniasis, your discharge might be yellow or green with genital itching, burning, and soreness.
If you notice any drastic changes in the smell, color, or feeling of your vaginal bacteria, see a healthcare provider about your treatment options. For more information and resources on all things health, head to the Stix Library.