5 min read
by Team Thinx | 06/14/2023
There are plenty of ways we who menstruate can keep tabs on our cycle, from period tracking apps to a good old-fashioned wall calendar. But as reliable as these methods might be, few things beat tuning into our bodies and using a keen, observant eye to monitor the changes we go through every 28 days (give or take).
Sure, we’re talking about physical and emotional alterations like sore breasts and an inexplicable urge to cry after spotting a puppy cuddling with a kitten on our IG feed. But we’re also talking about something even more revealing: vaginal discharge, and its subtle — or sometimes obvious — shifts.
Tracking your vaginal discharge might even be more important than predicting when your period will come, as it can be a direct mirror of your health. Read on as we uncover the different stages of vaginal discharge, what they indicate, and why they’re vital.
Simply put, vaginal discharge is the fluid that comes out of the vagina. It’s usually a faint color — white, clear, or off-white – with varying degrees of texture and:
viscosity (or thickness)
Some of us can recall the achingly awkward conversations with our peers, caregivers, school teachers, and older, already-menstruating babysitters right when we first started getting our periods. But what many failed to mention is that this stuff we soon discover in our underwear is also part of the process.
You may have heard, at some point, that vaginas are self-cleaning machines. This description might strike some as clinical, or even coarse.
But the point is this: your vagina works with your cervix and uterus to produce this ovulation discharge, which is usually composed of water, bacteria, dead cells, and other microorganisms. It’s a way for your organs to:
cleanse and moisturize your vagina
Think of it like sweating, or eliminating waste in the bathroom: a totally natural process that ultimately works to protect and benefit you.
Your vaginal discharge can further clue you into your wellness, too. Changes to its color, smell, and volume can all be signs that something is amiss internally — a topic we’ll jump into shortly.
In the meantime, let’s look at why and how you also have a “discharge cycle” in addition to your menstruation cycle.
Whether you’re actively paying attention to your discharge to assess where you are in your cycle or idly noticing that your discharge is minor one day and major the next, vaginal discharge is like periods themselves: subject to change, and without express permission or warning.
But these changes can actually be a positive for those out there who are planning on becoming pregnant, as well as for those who want to avoid it: vaginal discharge can either facilitate the swim of sperm toward your uterus, or make it much more difficult for them to go the distance.
Here are the vaginal discharge “types” you might experience throughout the month (but keep in mind that everyone’s period, as with their vaginal discharge, is unique).
During menstruation, you may experience only a small amount of discharge. This is usually combined with your menstruation blood, so it may appear reddish in color.
At the tail end of your menstruation phase, you might also notice dark brown discharge instead of your period, perhaps with a brownish tint. This is usually old blood that has collected in your vagina or a sign that your uterus is taking its sweet time to slough off its lining. (The longer blood is exposed to oxygen, the darker it may appear.) In other words: it’s usually nothing to worry about, and you can say yay to not having to deal with vaginal discharge while also managing your period.
Your follicular phase usually starts on the sixth day of your cycle (remember: your menstrual cycle begins with the first day of your period). This stage is characterized by:
rising estrogen levels
the thickening of your uterine lining (after shedding itself the days prior)
During this phase, your vaginal discharge may start off as white and seem chunkier and stickier. This stickiness complicates your chances of becoming pregnant (but this isn’t to say you won’t, which underscores the importance of using birth control methods if you’re not aiming for a pregnancy).
As you move through this stage, though — and as your body preps itself for ovulation — your discharge may become tackier. This particular discharge doesn’t make it the most hospitable time to usher sperm toward your uterus either, but sperm is sly and resilient: it can chill out in your uterus waiting for an egg to drop for up to five days. (This stage is considered “less safe” if you’re trying to avoid becoming pregnant.)
You’ll likely notice the most significant changes to your vaginal discharge during ovulation. Elevating estrogen levels and the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) prompts your body to release an egg and urges your body to make vaginal discharge to encourage sperm to reach its target, which is why some refer to discharge at this stage as “fertile mucus.”
Your vaginal discharge may be:
clear in color
It might also have the general texture and appearance of raw egg whites. Further, you may produce substantially more vaginal fluid — as in, up to 30 times more than post-ovulation. Again, this is to ease the passage of sperm.
If this extra discharge bothers you, or if you want to avoid staining your favorite pair of underwear, you may want to consider wearing panty liners or absorbent period underwear (which, FYI, you don’t need to be on your period to wear).
Progesterone levels climb during this time, and the stretchy vaginal discharge you experienced turns white and thicker in consistency again before gradually diminishing and drying out.
The distinct phases of your menstrual cycle aren’t the only changes that affect your discharge. It can also change due to:
exercise – After a workout, you might find that you’re not just sweaty but somehow wetter down there, with a clear, watery discharge. Why does this happen? Exertion may cause you to release more discharge than usual, particularly with vigorous exercises.
arousal – Not to take the magic out of the moment, but just in case you’re curious: when you get turned on, blood rushes to your genitals. Your blood vessels then expand and push fluids to the walls of your vagina. And more arousal fluid is a good thing when it comes to intimacy, as it can make sexual intercourse more comfortable and pleasurable.
the presence of an infection – This is where and when observing your discharge becomes especially crucial: if your discharge takes on a funky color, like yellow or gray or green, or if it has a super-clumpy, crumbled-tofu-like appearance and smells off, it may indicate a vaginal infection.
pregnancy – If you did become pregnant during ovulation, instead of your discharge thickening again before disappearing, you might continue to experience vaginal discharge in another beautiful trick of the body: vaginal discharge is generated to prevent toxins from entering your cervix and harming the fetus.
hormonal changes – Other changes in your hormonal ecosystem, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), menopause, and starting a new birth control, can also affect the heaviness of your discharge.
douching – Just in case you needed yet another reminder to refrain from douching and other “hygienic practices,” bear in mind that this, too, can affect how much vaginal discharge you produce. Besides, remember that self-cleaning reference we made earlier? The vagina has this one under control.
In addition to notifying your OBGYN or PCP if you notice your abnormal vaginal discharge tending more to the color of an unripe banana than plain yogurt, reach out to your trusted healthcare provider if you also experience:
sores or a rash — by themselves or with the presence of vaginal discharge
All of these vaginal symptoms may be a sign of something more serious like bacterial vaginosis or Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). And since reproductive health is health, there are countless reasons to stay on top of what’s occurring below your hips.
Good question — and, to be honest, it depends on who you ask. Some experts shove vaginal discharge and fertile cervical mucus into the same category as all “things that happen with a vagina” (no comment), while others draw a distinction between vaginal discharge and the fluid that is made exclusively by your cervix to aid in conception.
Vaginal discharge is as natural a biological process as shedding dead skin cells and sneezing: the fluid you organically produce helps shield you from bacteria and infections. The varying personalities of discharge throughout the cycle can alert you to where you are — hormonally speaking — just as substantial changes in your discharge can inform you that it’s high time to see a medical professional.
Whether you want extra protection when you’re producing more vaginal fluid than usual or want to make your period more comfortable when it arrives, Thinx has got you covered — literally. Our collection of period underwear is made with dry-wicking and odor-controlling materials to keep you comfortable and confident. Plus, with a range of styles and absorbency types, you’re bound to find a pair that’ll suit your lifestyle.
At Thinx, we strive to provide our readers with the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information. Our content is crafted by experienced contributors who ground their work in research and data. All information has been fact-checked and extensively reviewed by our team of medical professionals to ensure content is accurate. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked within the text or listed at the bottom to lead readers to the original source.
Planned Parenthood. What is the cervical mucus method of FAMs?https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness/whats-cervical-mucus-method-fams
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Is it normal to have vaginal discharge? https://www.acog.org/womens-health/experts-and-stories/ask-acog/is-it-normal-to-have-vaginal-discharge
Cleveland Clinic. Vaginal discharge. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/4719-vaginal-discharge
Mayo Clinic. A Mayo clinic gynecologist weighs in on feminine hygiene and vaginal health products worth buying. https://mcpress.mayoclinic.org/women-health/vaginal-health-and-hygiene/
Keck Medicine of USC. What you need to know about vaginal discharge. https://www.keckmedicine.org/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-vaginal-discharge/
Cleveland Clinic. Cervical mucus. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21957-cervical-mucus
USA Fibroids Center. What does discharge look like before your period?https://www.usafibroidcenters.com/blog/what-does-discharge-look-like-before-your-period/
Cleveland Clinic. What does the color of your period mean?https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-does-the-color-of-your-period-mean/
Cleveland Clinic. Menstrual cycle. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10132-menstrual-cycle
Mayo Clinic. Getting pregnant. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/expert-answers/pregnancy/faq-20058504
Sutter Health. Vaginal discharge. https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/teens/female/vaginal-discharge
Prevention. 5 things female runners should know about their private parts. https://www.prevention.com/health/a20510533/5-gynecological-issues-female-runners-should-know/
Medical News Today. Causes of heavy vaginal discharge. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327379#hormonal-imbalances
NHS. Vaginal discharge in pregnancy. https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/vaginal-discharge/
Merck Manual. Vaginal discharge. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/symptoms-of-gynecologic-disorders/vaginal-discharge
Mayo Clinic. Vaginal discharge. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/causes/sym-20050825
Mayo Clinic. Vaginal discharge: when to see a doctor. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-discharge/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050825
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