What is vaginal discharge and what is the purpose of it?

Every woman has vaginal discharge. Some discharge/fluids are perfectly normal, but others may be sign of infection.

Normal vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is usually clear or white fluid produced by the uterus, cervix, and vagina. The amount of fluid can vary from woman to woman and largely depends on the menstrual cycle.

Cervical discharge is produced by the cervix and is regulated by the hormones estrogen and progesterone. It can be cloudy or white, slippery or sticky. A woman’s body usually makes more of it as she approaches ovulation.

Arousal fluid is produced when a woman is sexually stimulated, lubricating the vagina for comfortable intercourse. This fluid results from an increase in vaginal blood flow that pushes fluid through the vaginal wall and lubricates the entire vaginal canal. This is allowing for ease of vaginal penetration during sexual activity. With age, production of vaginal lubrication during sexual encounters tends to decline. However, having more foreplay can be one way to improve lubrication. It can help to focus specifically on the pleasurable sensations, thoughts, and fantasies that trigger lubrication. Women may also consider using a lubricant for vaginal dryness.

Over time, women get to know the characteristics of their own typical vaginal discharge. They can familiarize themselves further by touching it and noting its usual color, consistency, and smell.

Changes in these characteristics (for example, a different color or a distinct odor) could be a sign of infection.

Abnormal vaginal discharge

Depending on the type of infection, discharge may become green, yellow, gray, or brown. It may become thinner, thicker, or “clumpy” like cottage cheese. And it can start to smell unusual. (Some women describe the smell as “fishy” or “metallic.”) There may be other symptoms as well, such as pain or itching. 

If these symptoms occur, a woman should see her health care professional or gynecologist as soon as possible. Abnormal vaginal discharge can be caused by yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or sexually transmitted infections like trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia. There are many safe and effective treatments for vaginal infections.

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