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How Your Vaginal Discharge Changes During Your Cycle
And How To Spot Unhealthy Discharge
Having a vagina can be a messy affair, and discharge is a big part of that. Vaginal discharge—or leukorrhea, as it’s medically referred to—is the umbrella term used to describe the fluid that comes out of the vagina, largely made up of cervical mucus, vaginal fluid and bacteria.
Vaginal discharge is perfectly normal (it’s your vagina’s way of cleaning itself), and its consistency, quantity and colour changes throughout your cycle in response to hormonal fluctuations. Healthy vaginal discharge ranges from white to clear in colour, and thick to slippery in consistency.
Although many of us are lead to believe that vaginal discharge is bad, most of the time it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a healthy bodily function that indicates your vagina is doing it’s thing.
Gentle reminder: discharge is not an indication that your vagina is “dirty”, or that it needs internal cleaning with douches, vaginal steams, or washes. All of these things will disrupt your vaginal microbiome and potentially cause unhealthy changes in your discharge.
Vaginal discharge is a creature of habit that follows a fairly predictable pattern. In fact, cyclical changes in the way your discharge looks and feels is a great way to determine where you are in your cycle. However, if you’re taking hormonal contraception you’re less likely to notice a change in your discharge. This is because the levels in your hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) are more constant compared to people on non-hormonal contraception.
It can say a lot about your health, as well as fertility and whether you’ve contracted an infection (including some forms of STIs). Getting to know your vaginal discharge makes it that much easier to spot when something’s not quite right… you just have to know what’s normal for your body, and what is worrisome.
Here is how your vaginal discharge changes throughout each phase of the menstrual cycle, and how to spot healthy vs. unhealthy discharge.
During the menstrual phase (aka your period) the blood flow mixes with your mucus, so you probably won’t notice any discharge. In the following days, the amount of vaginal discharge you produce is very little (and might even be completely absent).
If it’s brown, don’t worry—it’s just your uterus expelling old, leftover blood from your period.
In the days leading up to ovulation, oestrogen levels start to rise and your cervix starts producing more mucus. Your vaginal discharge at this stage is likely to be thick and creamy in consistency, and either white or cloudy in colour.
This is a no-go for baby-making since you’re still outside of your fertile window, and your vaginal mucus is intentionally thick to intercept any sperm trying to reach your uterus. Some tenacious swimmers may still make it through, and since sperm can live in your body for up to 5 days, you should probably use a condom—unless you’re trying to conceive.
This is when you produce the most discharge, do don’t be alarmed if you feel “wetter” than usual. As oestrogen peaks right before ovulation (1 or 2 days before), vaginal discharge will resemble raw egg whites—clear, slippery and stretchy.
If your discharge is stretchy enough that you can pull it between your index finger and thumb, you’re ovulating! It’s a telltale sign that there’s an egg ready to be fertilised, and the watery consistency of your cervical mucus is intended to facilitate sperm reaching an egg. Cervical mucus also allows sperm to survive for longer, providing it with a more hospitable home in comparison to the vagina’s acidic environment.
Right after ovulation you’ll notice a fairly dramatic change in the quantity and texture of your discharge. Progesterone peaks to support a potential pregnancy, and inhibits the secretion of cervical mucus, acting as a barrier that stops sperm from entering the upper reproductive tract.
Thicker mucus also prevents any bugs and infection from reaching the uterus while the fertilised egg is implanting, and your immune system is dampened.
Once again, your vaginal discharge might feel sticky, dry, or completely absent.
How Do You Spot Unhealthy Vaginal Discharge?
Discharge is highly contingent on where you are in your menstrual cycle, so it’s normal for it to change in volume, colour and consistency. There are, however, a few caveats. Unhealthy vaginal discharge can be recognised through drastic changes in colour and texture.
Green, grey and frothy discharge is usually caused by an STI called trichomoniasis, and is often accompanied by burning and irritation. Discharge that is lumpy and curdled (like cottage cheese), could signal the presence of thrush. This often also includes vaginal itching, burning and painful urination. Symptoms of chlamydia can often mimic those of thrush, so it’s a good idea to visit your GP or local sexual health clinic if you’ve recently had unprotected sex or are due for your STI check-up if you notice a thrush-like vaginal discharge.
Smell is also a good indicator of a possible infection. Normal vaginal discharge is rarely odourless, but stronger or foul-smelling (fishy), sometimes greyish discharge is a common symptom of BV. The smell can become stronger following your period, and after unprotected sexual intercourse that included ejaculation. BV is not an STI, but it can put you at higher risk of contracting one.
A drastic change is smell is the easiest way to detect the presence of BV, and it’s why gynaecologists often perform a “sniff test”. Don’t be afraid to be acquainted with the normal smell of your discharge! Yes, we’re saying you should smell your underwear (unless you’re really squeamish).
- Vaginal discharge is normal, and changes depending where you are in your menstrual cycle.
- Hormonal birth control, STIs and vaginal infections like thrush and BV can affect the quantity, colour, texture and smell of your discharge.
- Right before and after your period you produce less vaginal discharge, typically thick and tacky in texture and white or yellowish. It’s common to experience “dry days” in these phases.
- Vaginal discharge is mainly made up of cervical mucus, and right before and during ovulation is when you produce the most. This is when your discharge will be clear and slippier, to help the passage of sperm. These “wetter” days are when you are the most fertile.
- Vaginal discharge that is grey or green, looks like cottage cheese, or smells foul might be a sign of infection. Ditto if you experience pain, burning or itching.