Vaginal discharge: It’s super annoying and, unfortunately, pretty typical. But when does discharge cross the line from annoying to “I guess I better call my health care provider”?
If you experience regular vaginal discharge without any other symptoms, there’s probably nothing to worry about. But if you notice a change in your discharge — especially if you’ve just had sex with a new partner — or the discharge comes with other symptoms, it’s best to get it checked out.
When to watch
Let’s start with what’s typical: There is no typical! On average, women have less than one teaspoon of discharge daily. But this varies throughout the month and from one person to another — not to mention being pretty hard to measure outside of research studies. This discharge is generally clear to white, thick and without a bad odor.
Hormonal changes can increase or decrease the amount of vaginal discharge. Vaginal discharge increases near the middle of the menstrual cycle, when ovulation occurs. Along with more volume, this ovulation discharge is typically thicker and often described as stringy, stretchy or whitened (like a raw egg white) compared with discharge at other times of the month.
You also may see variability in vaginal discharge during perimenopause or with the menopause transition. Using hormonal contraceptives, including an intrauterine device (IUD), also can change vaginal discharge.
When to work up
Any change from your typical vaginal discharge pattern — whether you notice a change in color, odor or amount — means you should at least message your health care provider. Symptoms like change in color of the vagina or vulva, swelling, masses or lesions, skin or tissue changes, pain, itching, or other irritation also are reasons to reach out.
Be sure to book an appointment if the discharge change occurs after sex, especially with a new partner. If you have pain with intercourse or irregular bleeding — between menstrual periods, after intercourse or after menopause — you should make an appointment with your health care team.
Irregular discharge has many causes, such as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), tissue irritation, or a change in the amount and type of naturally occurring bacteria in your vagina, called the microbiome. Some causes— such as an STI — are pretty easily ruled out with office testing or if you don’t have a history of recent sexual contact. But there are still many conditions with overlapping symptoms, which is why it’s best to talk to your care provider or gynecologist rather than ignoring the problem or self-diagnosing.
Care and wear
To prevent or address vaginal and vulvar irritation, consider these tips:
- Keep hygiene simple. Only use warm water to wash. Gentle soaps are sometimes OK, but don’t use harsh or scented soaps. And don’t douche.
- Lingerie might not be your friend. If your skin is irritated or sensitive, wear white cotton underwear. Skip tighter cuts or thongs if they cause chafing. Sleep without underwear, or wear loose clothing to bed.
- Wash your underwear separately. Washing underwear in hot water and with half the amount of laundry soap will decrease exposure of sensitive areas to your detergent and laundry products. Avoid fragrances, softeners and bleach. Hand-washing underwear is typically not enough.
- Practice safer sex. Outside of a mutually monogamous relationship, use condoms and regularly get screened for STIs.
- Choose your lubricant wisely. If you use a lubricant, try water-based rather than silicone or oil-based formulas. Note that alcohol and tobacco use can decrease your natural lubrication — another reason to limit those.
- Limit the bubbles. While a bubble bath or a dip in a hot tub is great as an occasional indulgence, these practices can irritate your vagina and vulva — especially if you’re soaking for a long time.
- Keep it natural. Shaving your vulva can irritate the hair follicles — a condition called folliculitis — or make the skin more sensitive to exposures.
Following these tips should help keep your body healthy and your vaginal discharge regular. But if you notice something amiss, don’t be afraid to reach out to a health care provider.
Your Sexual Health
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