Vaginal discharge is something every woman experiences over the course of her life. But depending on our age, where we’re at in our menstrual cycle, and whether we’re pre or post-menopausal, the vaginal discharge we produce can change.
Sometimes these changes go beyond the bounds of what’s considered normal discharge and can be cause for concern. That’s why it’s important to know what healthy vaginal discharge looks like for you and when you may need to check in with your doctor.
What is Vaginal Discharge?
Think about your vagina as its own microbiome, or group of organisms. It has its own types of bacteria, such as lactobacilli, that work together to create a healthy environment. Lactobacilli produce lactic acid, which helps protect your vagina from harmful bacteria. This is why most women typically register a vaginal pH between 3.8 to 5.0, which is slightly acidic.
Vaginal discharge is key to your vaginal health and maintaining a healthy microbiome. Your vaginal glands produce the discharge which regularly gets rid of any unwanted, bad bacteria and dead skin cells. Normal vaginal discharge is either clear, white, or off-white, thin or thick, and can be sticky with a slight (but not off-putting) odor.
Your menstrual cycle also affects how much discharge you produce and its texture. Sometimes a hormonal imbalance or taking birth control can impact the amount of vaginal discharge you produce as well.
Changes in Vaginal Discharge During Perimenopause and Menopause
As your body prepares to enter menopause (also known as perimenopause), your vaginal microbiome changes. The amount of estrogen your ovaries make begins to decline, which can reduce the amount of vaginal discharge you produce and contribute to symptoms like dryness and irritation. If you’ve experienced some of these vaginal changes, you’re not alone. Up to 47% of postmenopausal women report similar vaginal symptoms of low estrogen.
Estrogen is also essential for producing the helpful lactobacilli which keeps your vaginal microbiome protected and pH balanced. Without sufficient estrogen for lactobacilli, your vaginal pH levels can increase. Higher pH levels create an imbalance in your vaginal microbiome that makes it more susceptible to harmful bacteria and infection.
What is Abnormal Vaginal Discharge?
Most types of vaginal discharge fall into the realms of normal or abnormal. Any changes to your vaginal pH levels—during menopause or otherwise—can contribute to abnormal discharge. Abnormal vaginal discharge often has an unusual or foul smell, is a different color such as green, brown, pink, or yellow, and has a different texture or consistency. You may also notice other symptoms such as increased itchiness, soreness, and pelvic pain.
If you notice abnormal discharge, you likely have an infection, also known as vaginitis. Vaginal infections can happen to due a number of factors, whether it’s low estrogen during perimenopause or menopause, antibiotics, sexual activity, or using a product to douche (cleanse inside your vagina). As a reminder, douching is not recommended because it removes the good bacteria along with the bad, which increases your risk of infection.
The most common types of vaginitis include bacterial vaginitis (BV), which makes up 50% of all cases of vaginitis, vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC), and trichomoniasis.
VVC also goes by a more common name, “yeast infection,” which is a type of infection many women experience due to an overgrowth of the candida fungus. Both BC and VVC develop as a result of bacterial overgrowth. Trichomoniasis, on the other hand, is a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI) that passes from person to person.
Each type of infection has different symptoms, such as varying color or odor, and requires different courses of antibiotic or antifungal treatment.
When to Talk to Your Doctor about Vaginal Discharge
Even though changes to vaginal discharge are common, a majority of women don’t report to their doctor when they are experiencing abnormal vaginal discharge. Sometimes this is because of embarrassment or because they assume it will go away on its own.
Any changes in discharge that are red, brown, pink, green, or yellow, however, warrant a trip to the doctor for further investigation. Your doctor will be able to perform the necessary tests to determine if you have vaginitis, what type of vaginitis you have, and the best treatment option for you.
It may be tempting to treat abnormal vaginal discharge yourself with products from your local drugstore, but if you have any symptoms that concern you, always check with your healthcare practitioner.