Answers to the questions you’re too embarrassed to ask
Like most women with other things going on in life, you probably don’t give your vaginal discharge much thought. As long as it looks and feels normal—that means clear or white and watery to slightly sticky, depending on where you are in your cycle—you have no reason to be concerned.
But when something in your undies looks or feels off, that sounds alarm bells. Maybe there’s a lot more of it than usual, the color is weird, or you’re hit with a whiff of an odor that you know can’t be good. Before you panic and buy out all the creams and sprays in your local drugstore, read our discharge decoder.
It’s Clear, White, Wet, or Stretchy
It’s Probably: Ovulation. This slippery discharge appears during the middle of your cycle; it’s your body’s way of making it easier for sperm to slide into your vagina and fertilize an egg. “Discharge at ovulation can be copious,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn in Westchester, New York and coauthor of V Is for Vagina. “I often hear from patients who are worried something is wrong, but it’s normal.” No wonder this type of sex is the kind women prefer when they’re ovulating!
It’s White, Clumpy, and Crazy Itchy
It’s Probably: A yeast infection, one that’s caused by an overgrowth of the yeast that normally helps balance the bacteria in your vagina. “There’s usually a lot of cottage-cheese looking discharge,” says Dweck. “And while it doesn’t have an odour, it’s accompanied by killer itching of the outer or inner labia.” A yeast infection is incredibly common and can be caused by a ton of things, such as taking antibiotics or sitting around in your damp gym clothes. “Yeast love warm, moist environments,” says Dweck. Pick up an OTC anti-yeast cream, or ask your doctor about an antifungal prescription that ends the infection without any mess.
It’s Yellowish-Green and Possibly Stings a Little
It’s Probably: Chlamydia or gonorrhea, two common bacterial STDs, says Dweck. Other signs of either infection include pelvic pain and burning while urinating—but scarily, most women have no symptoms. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are easily cured with antibiotics, but you have to get your guy to see a doctor, as well. “Both partners need to be cured, or you’ll keep passing either infection back and forth to each other,” says Dweck.
It’s Grayish, Thin, and Has a Strong Odour
It’s Probably: Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). “The odour is the defining trait—it’s kind of a foul, fish-like smell,” says Dweck. We know—not something you want a whiff of when you take off your underwear. BV is also very common (it’s the most common vaginal infection among women ages 15 to 44, according to the CDC) and is easily cured with prescription meds once your doctor diagnoses it. It’s a bit of a mystery why some women develop BV, but it generally means that something has upset the bacterial balance in your vagina, though experts aren’t always sure what.
It’s Frothy, Has an Unpleasant Odour, and Is Tinged Gray or Green
It’s Probably: Trichomoniasis. It’s the most common curable STD in the country, according to the CDC, yet you don’t have to have sex to catch it. “Trichomoniasis is caused by an organism that can live on towels, vibrators, and other inanimate objects,” says Dweck. Equally alarming, most men and women who have it don’t show symptoms—but if left untreated, it can make it easier for a woman to contract HIV and affect her baby’s health if she’s pregnant, reports the CDC. The good news is that it can be treated and cured with a prescription pretty quickly.
It’s Probably: Breakthrough bleeding, which often happens during the first few months after a woman goes on the Pill, as her body adjusts to the new hormones. If it’s dark red or brownish-colored discharge, it could simply be leftover blood from your period that took its time leaving your vagina. In rare cases, bloody discharge can signal something more threatening—for example, a precancerous cervical lesion. “Let your doctor know, so she can check you out and rule out a serious issue,” says Dweck.
This article was first published in Womens Health Magazine by ESTHER CRAIN