Put A Cup In It

Vaginal Discharge | An Illustrated Guide To What’s Normal & What’s Not?

Vaginal Discharge | An Illustrated Guide To What's Normal & What's Not? A line-up of hands showing how thick or thin vaginal discharge and cervical mucus are throughout the menstrual cycle. Additional images are a breakdown of this main image and go into more specific detail.

Before we get into the details, let’s just go ahead and cover that vaginal discharge is a completely normal part of life with a vagina.

Discharge is essentially a mix of fluids that comes from the vaginal walls and the cervix. Combined with good, naturally occurring bacteria, it cleans and lubricates the vagina and helps prevent infections — among other things.

Discharge isn’t dirty, weird, or a sign of chronic arousal or masturbation (yes, I’ve heard that!) What it is, is a very normal and necessary function of your vagina for optimal health and comfort.

What Is Normal Vaginal Discharge?

Vaginal Discharge Illustration by Put A Cup In It — A line-up of hands showing how thick or thin vaginal discharge and cervical mucus are throughout the menstrual cycle. Additional images are a breakdown of this main image and go into more specific detail.

Vaginal discharge is predictable, but also ever-changing. The amount, consistency, and scent will depend on your body and the current phase of your menstrual cycle.

The cycle days and days each phase last that are listed here are approximate and based on a 28-day cycle. A cycle that is consistent and between 21 to 38 days is considered normal. That is to say that experiences will vary (tracking and getting to know your cycle will help), but this is a decent idea of what to expect:

Cycle Days 1-9 | Lasting 3-4 Days 

After your period there is not a lot of moisture. The texture is fairly dry and may become sticky. The possibility of pregnancy in this phase is very low.

Cycle Days 8-10 | Lasting 3-5 Days 

The amount begins to increase. Becomes stickier, turns cloudy and white, and then takes on a creamier feel. The possibility of pregnancy in this phase is low, but possible.

Cycle Days 11-14 | Lasting 1-2 Days 

Just before ovulation, the amount of natural lubrication will typically increase noticeably. It becomes more clear, watery, and slippery. The possibility of pregnancy in this phase is high.

Cycle Days 14-16 | Lasting 1-2 Days 

Around ovulation, it is very wet, clear, and stretchy! This stage is often referred to as “egg white” due to its color and consistency. It is also called spinnbarkeit. The possibility of pregnancy in this phase is high.

Cycle Days 17-28 | Lasting 12-14 Days 

After ovulation, it will return to having less moisture and become more cloudy and sticky once again. The cycle starts over with the next period. The possibility of pregnancy in this phase is possible 1 day after ovulation, but then drops quickly to very low and unlikely.

Being familiar with the changes in your discharge, as they relate to your own cycle, can also help you monitor the possibility of pregnancy (this is going to be the more wet and slippery days). Again, it varies for everyone, but generally speaking, you are most fertile for about one week of your cycle (5 days before ovulation, the day of, and the day after).

What Should Vaginal Discharge Smell Like?

The natural scent of a healthy vagina can vary from person to person and may change throughout the menstrual cycle. Generally speaking, it has a mild, musky scent that is not unpleasant. Some people describe it as earthy or slightly sweet or earthy.

Healthy vaginal discharge can naturally have mild scents that are:

  • tangy or sour
  • coppery or metallic
  • earthy or sweet like molasses — earthy sweet, not candy sweet
  • a bit like bleach or ammonia — this can be natural if a bit of pee is also present, but it could be a sign of BV

Keep in mind that how strong or faint the scent is can also vary. Everybody is different!

What About Discharge Bleaching Underwear?

Another fun part of having a vagina is that it has a sort of amazing self-maintaining microbiome. You may hear some refer to it as a “self-cleaning oven.” Basically, the fluids we talked about earlier produce something called glycogen, which aids a naturally occurring bacteria in the vagina called Lactobacilli. The end result is lactic acid, which keeps the vagina healthy and happy with a pH somewhere between 3.8 & 5.0. This pH is fairly acidic (comparable to tomato juice or red wine) and can potentially cause stains or bleaching of fabrics. It happens. It’s normal. RIP your favorite underwear, if this is you.

What Types of Discharge Should I Be Concerned About?

Vaginal Discharge Color Guide by Put A Cup In It | Image shows a variety of illustrated liquid blobs in an assortment of colors with the following text: Shades of red are normal around your period. Otherwise, it can be irritation (after sex, for example) or something potentially more serious. Clear, white, & cream colors are typically healthy signs unless accompanied by an unusual scent or texture. (e.g., thick, white, & clumpy) Slightly yellow isn’t uncommon, but yellow & green are often signs of an STI. Shades of Grey are associated with BV (bacterial vaginosis).

While discharge is a basic and important function of the vagina, there are times when it can tell you that something is up. Unusual discharge can be caused by something as simple as improper basic hygiene practices or something more serious that needs medical attention. Here are some signs to look out for:

The color of the discharge:

  • Take note if you notice discharge that is grayish, yellow, green, chunky, brown (not period blood), or black.

The scent of the discharge:

  • fish-like smells — this could potentially be bacterial vaginosis or Trichomoniasis (an STI that is treatable with antibiotics)
  • decay or bad meat — it could be a foreign body, like a forgotten tampon

If you have any strong and unusual scent that is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it’s important to speak to your doctor or another trusted healthcare provider

  • fever
  • unusual discharge color or consistency (e.g. cottage cheese)
  • vaginal bleeding (that is not your period)
  • itching
  • burning
  • rashes or redness
  • swelling
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • ​pain during urination

Common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge and changes are:

  • bacterial vaginosis (BV)
  • yeast infections / thrush
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Chlamydia
  • A foreign object (e.g. a forgotten tampon or condom)
  • medical conditions or medications that impact your hormones (e.g. birth control pills)
  • menopause

How to Best Care For Your Vulva & Vagina

Improper care practices can be very irritating to your vagina, and they can even leave you open to vaginal infections.

The vulva and vagina don’t need much. Stick to water (and a gentle cleanser/soap, if necessary) for cleaning the vulva (the outside bits), and absolutely no soap or cleanser of any kind inside the vagina.

To prevent irritation (or worse) it’s important to forgo anything meant for cleaning the vagina (please, no sprays or douches) and anything scented (soaps, wipes, period products). It is super important to completely avoid fragrances in the genital area.

As for underwear, be aware of how your body responds to the detergents and fabric softeners you use. If you notice anything off, those are easy to swap out. Also, it’s always said, but truly, breathable underwear is ideal (like those made from cotton).

Managing Vaginal Discharge (If You Want To)

Again, discharge is normal and not something that anyone should be embarrassed about by default, but sometimes it’s a lot and it just doesn’t feel great — I get it! Here are a few options that might be worth a try on days when you feel like you need a bit of protection.

Wear Cotton Underwear

Breathable underwear can help things from feeling extra moist, swampy, etc. It’s not going to directly manage the discharge but you may find that it helps improve the overall feeling.

Try Pantyliners Or Thin Pads

On days when things are just flowing, a liner is a great option. Even if you’re not a pad user, you may find liners to be comfortable given that they are typically very thin and small. There is some debate on if it’s okay to wear them all of the time, due to creating a barrier that could allow for moisture to become trapped. I’m inclined to think that only when needed is best, but do with that what you will.

Wear A Menstrual Cup or Menstrual Disc

Both menstrual cups and menstrual discs can be safely worn for up to 12 hours (before removing, washing, and reinserting). Of course, both of these devices can only collect what comes from above their placement, so that’s going to be limited to anything from the cervix and whatever portion of the vaginal canal is above the rim.

One Thing Before You Go

Before you go, and because you’ve read through the article above, I want to note that the terminology I choose to use is deliberate. I’m not sure I’ve ever bothered to point it out, but it’s been a constant thread because how we speak about ourselves matters.

Most words used to talk about vulvas and vaginas are loaded with bad connotations that fuel shame and embarrassment. Terms like “odor” when referring to natural scents and “menstrual hygiene” when referring to period care subtly insinuate that there is something inherently wrong or unclean about existing as made — and that’s just not true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Email Us Facebook Facebook Group YouTube Instagram TikTok Twitter Pinterest