The Doctor is In | Vaginal Discharge: Knowing when you’re normal and when to see a doctor

Vaginal discharge is not a common topic, leaving many women knowing little about what is normal and healthy for their bodies. Understanding when your normal can give you the tools to detect changes and get treatment early if a problem occurs.

For many people, it is often uncomfortable to discuss vaginal discharge. However, this natural phenomenon is completely normal and healthy. The term vaginal discharge refers to the fluid or mucus that comes from the vagina. It keeps the vagina moist and helps protect against infection.

Why is vaginal discharge Important?

All people with a uterus experience vaginal discharge, and knowing what is normal and what is not can give clues to one’s health. It is typically odorless, has a thin to sticky consistency, and can be milky-white to clear in color.

The average female produces 0.5-1 teaspoon of vaginal discharge per day, but this can vary due to factors such as the menstrual cycle. Changes in estrogen levels contribute to such changes. For example, discharge often becomes thinner near ovulation.

What does abnormal discharge look like?

Other reasons a person’s discharge may change include menopause, infection, chemicals in soaps/bubble baths, and foreign objects. Color is an important indicator of abnormality. Here are some common color changes and what they may mean:

Brown or red: This is usually related to bleeding. It may be normal early or late in the menstrual cycle. If it occurs during other parts of the menstrual cycle, it may suggest a problem.

White and clumpy: Often seen in yeast infections. Some people even describe the appearance to be like “cottage cheese.” It can be associated with redness and itching.

Grey and/or white: This can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, which occurs when there is too much of a normal bacterium in the vagina. It is not a sexually transmitted infection. There can be an associated “fishy” odor described.

Green or yellow: This is frequently a sign of a bacterial infection from an STI such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomonas. Discharge may also be frothy with a foul smell.

Other signs of abnormal discharge include large changes in amount, a different or bad odor, thicker consistency, and any discharge associated with pain, itching, or swelling. In any of these cases, it is important to contact a physician.

What happens at the doctor?

In most cases of abnormal discharge, simple tests can be performed in a healthcare provider’s office to determine the cause. More work-up and testing may be necessary if a more complex issue is expected.

Attempting self-treatment is not recommended, as it can delay diagnosis and cause worsening of symptoms. Treatment is important, as untreated infections can potentially lead to spreading of infection, chronic pelvic pain, and infertility. Some vaginal infections can have little or no symptoms, so yearly STI screening is recommended in sexually active females less than 25 years old to prevent such complications.

How to keep the vagina healthy

Vaginal hygiene tips include using non-scented cleansers, avoiding douching (washing or cleaning the inside of the vagina with water or another fluid), wearing loose-fitting cotton underwear, and using barrier protection during sex (ex. condoms).

Vaginal discharge is normal and healthy for all women. In general, it is always correct to contact a healthcare provider with questions in case of abnormal discharge or other health concerns.

Ali Hagenow, 3rd year Medical Student, Class of 2024

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.