by Karin O’Sullivan
If you’ve ever wondered if your vaginal discharge is normal, you’re not alone. Women often attend sexual and reproductive health clinics with concerns over discharge (also known as cervical or vaginal secretions) and I spend a significant amount of time exploring, explaining and discussing what’s normal.
Are you “well-oiled”?
The first thing to know, is that vaginas are supposed to have secretions. They assist with lubrication, help keep the vagina clean and can even assist sperm to swim through the vagina to meet an egg.
If you didn’t have this natural lubrication, sex would be uncomfortable or painful. Years ago, I asked a friend to translate a French information sheet on cervical secretions as part of some work I was doing on fertility awareness methods. The literal translation was ‘the woman feels ‘well oiled’ as she walks down the street’ which I still feel is a very good description of a healthy vagina.
So, vaginal secretions are a very normal thing and not something you need to worry about getting rid of or covering up. They can vary in colour, texture and amount from person to person and change through your menstrual cycle, as well as at other times such as during pregnancy and at menopause.
It’s all about the hormones
If you’re not using hormonal contraception, secretions (also called mucus) are controlled by your natural sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. The level of these hormones changes through your menstrual cycle and affects the appearance and feel of your secretions.
There may be a few days before or after your period where you don’t have any secretions at all, or they appear brownish as they mix with blood from the start or end of your period.
This is followed by days when secretions appear thick, sticky and creamy. This is thanks to the hormone progesterone.
If you’re using hormonal contraception, your secretions are likely to be different. One of the ways these methods work is by keeping your secretions thick and sticky so that sperm can’t move through it to reach an egg
And if you’re pregnant, the hormones released during pregnancy are likely to lead to you producing more secretions than before you were pregnant.
Magical self-cleaning vaginas
Vaginas have a wonderful ability to look after themselves and stay clean and healthy. Your natural secretions play a key part in this.
Vaginas are full of healthy bacteria, called lactobacilli and these generally keep unhealthy bacteria under control unless anything happens to upset the natural balance.
You might be surprised to learn that the main cause of upsetting your vagina is by too much washing. It doesn’t actually take much to keep clean. You only need plain water – and you only need to wash the vulva (the external part of your genitals). Once a day is usually fine, although you may feel you want to wash more often during your period. You don’t need to wash or douche inside the vagina itself or use any special products.
Another thing to know is that your vagina has its own scent (you release pheromones – your natural sexual attractant to a partner) – and that’s perfectly normal. Vaginas are supposed to smell like vaginas – not rain or petals or soap.
Using soaps (even the non-perfumed kind), douches, bubble baths or even washing your hair in the bath may upset your natural, slightly acidic, balance which can destroy healthy bacteria and result in infections such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush.
So if you want to treat your vagina well, only use water to wash and don’t wash inside. Go on, try for a few weeks – see if you notice a difference.
Say knickers to pantyliners
While panty liners and pads are one method of absorbing menstrual blood, it’s best to take a break from them when you’re not menstruating. Panty liners will absorb vaginal secretions which can cause dryness and irritation – a healthy vagina is a moist vagina. And some panty liners are scented which can cause irritation.
Other things that can disrupt the balance
Other things that can upset the healthy balance of the vagina include taking antibiotics. This is because they kill off all types of bacteria – including the healthy lactobacilli in the vagina – so some people may be more prone to thrush after a course of antibiotics.
Around the menopause, your levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease which means that vaginal secretions can also decrease. If you feel this is a problem and sex becomes uncomfortable, don’t think it’s something that you just have to put up with. See your GP or practice nurse and ask them about options such as vaginal moisturisers and vaginal estrogens.
If you get to know your normal secretions, it can be easier to spot when something’s wrong.
One of the symptoms of a vaginal or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can be abnormal or unusual discharge. So if you notice changes in colour, smell or consistency of your normal secretions, have any other symptoms, or have no symptoms but think you may have been at risk of an STI, it’s really important to get checked out
Karin O'Sullivan is Sexwise and FPA's Clinical Lead