Discharge, mucus, secretions, fluid, wet. These are all part of the dictionary of terms to describe the physiological process of fluid that comes out of the vagina.
It’s normal, it’s healthy and we’re all leaking it just a bit. So why is vaginal discharge our dirty little secret?
Women worldwide have been taught to believe it's embarrassing, it's unhealthy, and it needs to be cleaned up with expensive feminine hygiene products. Vaginal toners, glitters, scrubs, cleanses, eggs and steamers are just the tip of the iceberg of available luxury treatments we’re told we ‘need’ to manage our lady bits. But what exactly are we buying into?
Debunk the Vagina Shame
“There’s a lot of money in vaginal shame” says Dr. Jen Gunter, OB/GYN. And this systemic shaming is great for selling products, but not so great for promoting actual vaginal health.
Perpetuating the idea we’re unclean is as old as time
Using excessive vaginal treatments to clean-up our downstairs can actually be harmful, not helpful to our vaginas. Their use can increase the risk of vaginal irritation, rashes, and future infections, causing problems where there were none before.
Getting intimate with our intimates instead, and understanding what a healthy vaginal flow looks like might help us better appreciate the purpose, and power of this fluid.
The physiology of it all
The female reproductive system is incredibly elaborate, autonomous, and self-regulating. And our discharge is part of the story. It serves many functions, including keeping our vaginas lubricated (yes please) and preventing infection (yes please, again). And it’s pretty easy to read, much like a mood ring, if we know what we’re looking for. Our discharge communicates much of our internal health changes, like:
Mapping our menstrual cycle through cervical mucus (CM)- If we’re not on hormonal birth control, the appearance, colour, scent and thickness of our CM will change throughout our menstrual cycle. We can even map ovulation, and better understand our fertile window when we get to know our CM intimately. See below (based on a 28 day cycle)
1. Period (occurs roughly on days 1- 5 of our cycle)
2. Post period (occurs roughly on days 6- 8 of our cycle): expect no, to little discharge. This is a time of low fertility.
3. Fertile window: (occurs roughly on days 9- 14 of our cycle): look out for thinning secretions and cloudy discharge, signalling we’re pre-ovulation. Usually on the day of ovulation, the CM can be very wet, clumpy and stretchy.
4. Post ovulation (occurs roughly on days 15- 22 of our cycle): the fluid starts to thicken and dry up altogether. We are no longer fertile post ovulation.
5. Pre period (occurs roughly on days 23-28 of our cycle): a thinner discharge may start up again, but expect little to no CM just before the period.
Aiding in fertility- unprotected sex leaves sperm vulnerable to vaginal acid and immune responses. To stay safe and ready for fertilisation, free sperm quickly contact cervical mucus, which filters out the weaker sperm. Only a minority of ejaculated sperm actually enter the cervix.
Telling us when we’re turned on - nature’s lube coming to the rescue - our vagina creates additional secretions during sexual arousal for a more comfortable experience. This moisture provides a physical affirmation we’re feeling good, and helps keep the whole experience flowing.
Letting us know we’re dehydrated- dehydration can lead to a yellow-tinged discharge, which can have a more pungent smell than regular discharge. This is a reminder it's time to up our water intake.
Confirming we've eaten something funky- strong smelling foods can also impact the colour and smell of our discharge. Think garlic, onion, asparagus. Good for your guts, not always so great for your breath or your discharge.
Bacterial infections, STIs and other not ideal scenarios - thick, clumpy, and foul-smelling discharge can be associated with vaginal ill health. When experiencing this, it’s best to seek advice from a health professional, in order to treat effectively.
Vaginal Health is Wealth
Perpetuating the idea we’re unclean is as old as time. So the discharge silence that’s followed is no surprise. The quiet has robbed us of an intimate understanding of what our secretions can tell us about our fertility, our health, our arousal, and our internal wellbeing. But it’s our free tool, ready to tell us about our body. So let’s start listening.