Why do bodies make vaginal discharge?
Women’s bodies have protective ways to keep open areas like vaginas, eyes, and ears safe from infection. Think of eye crust or snot as protective liquids of the eyes and nose. As a defence mechanism for the vagina, discharge is a mix of fluids that keeps the vagina clean. This discharge isn’t urine. Thanks to where women are in their monthly menstrual cycle, discharge colours can range from white to clear and textures can appear thicker or thinner on certain days.
Vaginal fluids and arousal
Vaginal fluids also work as a natural lubricant for when women are feeling aroused. The expression of ‘being wet’ refers to vaginal fluids and occurs when a woman’s body is becoming turned on. A thin, clear liquid is made in the vagina to prepare the woman’s body for intercourse, which is normal. Without this natural lubricant, a woman may feel pain when having intercourse because of vaginal friction and dryness.
Our bodies and minds work in mysterious ways so not having this arousal wetness does not mean that there's a problem with your vagina. How much and how often women make this natural fluid varies from day to day and woman to woman. So just in case, keep some water-based lubricant on hand, which you can typically buy at a chemist. Make sure to check the label because a water-based lubricant will dissolve in a woman’s vagina. Other lubricants like butter or Blue Band will not, and that can cause her more pain than pleasure, and cause problems in using condoms.
Learning about vaginas and their fluids
It’s important to know what healthy and normal vaginal discharges look and smell like, both when aroused and when not. To do so, women need to understand their own vaginas to easily noticed when something changes. It may seem unpleasant in the beginning but monitoring these fluids is just the same as paying attention to other parts of the body, like with a runny nose needing a tissue.
It’s easiest to start this investigation after finishing a menstrual period. While sitting on the toilet or in a private room, look at your underwear closely. If you aren’t wearing underwear that day, wipe yourself with a toilet paper before peeing and take a look.
The amount of discharge will differ from person to person. Some women have very little, while others need a pad or panty liner on a daily basis. Both are normal. The scent of vaginal discharge will also be unique for each woman, and colours will range from cloudy-white to clear. The texture of the discharge will often be dry, but sometimes it can be thicker and rest on top of the underwear.
The colour and texture will change throughout your menstrual cycle. After wiping in the bathroom (remember: always go front to back, never back to front; your vagina will thank you for it), some vaginal discharge can get on the toilet paper. The amount of discharge can vary throughout the month but is most noticeable around ovulation when the liquid can appear almost like egg whites. The female body is getting ready to fertilize an egg during ovulation, so discharge is formed in the texture of a natural, thin and clear lubricant that helps sperm travel to the egg. If there was ever a time to get pregnant, look out for this discharge: this will be the time with the highest chances! On the other hand, it can also be helpful in preventing pregnancies in family planning: when you see it, you know that you shouldn’t be having unprotected intercourse. Note that this discharge production does not occur in women who are menopausal, which commonly begins around age 50.
When vaginal discharge becomes unhealthy
But what about when vaginal discharge smells or has a different colour or texture than normal?
While the penis can easily be seen and cleaned, the vagina is inside a woman’s body and is more difficult to monitor its health. The vagina balances its own discharge, temperature, and acidity very carefully. Changes as simple as a new scented body wash could potentially cause abnormal vaginal discharge, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Other causes could be:
- Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea
- Forgotten tampon
- Vaginal infections such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
As compared to normal vaginal discharge, abnormal secretions will smell. Yeast infections smell like bread and the discharge is clumped, thick, and white, according to sexologist Dr Lindsay Doe. In addition to the smell and change in discharge, yeast infections can cause itchiness, discomfort and pain during sexual intercourse. Yeast infections are the second most common type of vaginal infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Seek out your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms for the first time for next steps.
Another common type of vaginal infection is bacterial vaginosis (BV), which has a fishy smell and similar discharge as a yeast infection. ‘Both yeast infections and BV are the results of natural microorganisms in the vagina overflourishing’, says Dr Doe. ‘It doesn’t mean that you are dirty or bad or gross; it just means that something threw off your balance and your system might need help resetting.’
Whether it is a new body wash or a yeast infection, the vagina is a sensitive, well-balanced area. This is why monitoring our vaginal discharge is so important when something goes off from our normal pattern.
Keeping up with healthy vaginal discharge
The fluids that come naturally and normally from our vaginas are like a roadmap to our health. If monitored closely, these fluids can tell us if our vaginas are behaving normally if they are sexually aroused, if they are ready to make (or not make) a baby, and if they have been thrown off balance somehow.
If you find yourself needing a routine to monitor your vaginal discharge and vaginal health, consider these prevention tips:
- Consider using a non-scented body wash when cleaning your vagina and a lightly scented laundry detergent for your underwear.
- Don’t use vaginal douches or washes as they can throw off the natural balance of your vagina and potentially cause vaginal infections.
- Clean with your genitals with water on the outside and vigorously in the hairline on top. Wash on the sides, in the hair and all the way in the back too. Vaginal discharge can collect in the pubic hair.
- Don’t insert fingers into the vagina or clean the insides of the vagina with soap. Remember vaginal discharge naturally cleans your vagina for you.
- After using the toilet, always wipe front-to-back (from the vagina to the anus). Back-to-front should be avoided, as it can move faecal (poop) matter closer or into the vagina.
- After sexual intercourse, go to the toilet to pee (even if only a little comes out) and wash your genitals on the outside with water (remember: top, sides, hairline, and all the way in the back). Cells from your sexual partner may have entered your body through their genitals, so washing your genitals on the outside after sexual intercourse can reduce the risk of vaginal infections. Remember, the inside of the vagina cleans itself with discharge so no need to wash there.
- Finally and most importantly, know what your vagina looks like by using a hand mirror and know what your normal discharge looks and smells like. It’s your best roadmap to vaginal health.