The production of natural lubricant or wetness is a normal response to sexual arousal in women. Most of the time a regular amount is produced to ensure the genital area is moist and does not chafe when exercising. However, the amount and consistency of production changes with the menstrual cycle, as oestrogen levels fall during the menopause, whether or not the woman is well and healthy, if she is on medication or if a sexual encounter results in anxiety.
The natural lubricant is produced from glands that surround the vagina. Normally it is clear or slightly cloudy and has very little smell. Its viscosity (or stickiness) changes over a menstrual cycle and that is quite normal. For instance, you may be ovulating if your discharge is occasionally clear, stretchy and very similar to raw egg whites. This clear sticky fluid makes it easier for sperm to travel to the egg, which is also a great indicator for women who are wanting to conceive. If you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s wise to keep an eye on your discharge.
A few days after ovulation, you may not notice any discharge at all because the cervical mucus (which is the egg-white discharge) is no longer needed to trap sperm. But don’t be alarmed if you have a thicker creamier white discharge. After you have ovulated and produced eggs, there will be a release of the hormone progesterone in the bloodstream, and this is the reason for the white discharge. As long as the discharge is odourless and doesn’t itch or burn, there’s nothing abnormal about this discharge. It’s just reflecting your bodily changes at different points in your cycle.
Your discharge can tell you when you’re pregnant. At the beginning of your pregnancy, you may notice a thicker, heavier or gummy discharge. This is because the cervix and vaginal walls get softer, and discharge increases to help prevent any infections travelling up from the vagina to the womb. You can also experience discharge towards the end of your pregnancy as well. Most women will have an increased amount of vaginal discharge during pregnancy, particularly in the later stages. As long as the discharge isn’t smelly, itchy or bloodstained then nothing needs to be done. The most important thing to be aware of is whether this could be leakage of waters. If there’s a lot of water loss, get checked out by your midwife, GP or at the hospital.
Women are increasingly more stressed today with work, family and hectic lifestyles. However, stress can also affect our physical health. Stress is a major cause of hormonal imbalances within the body, which could, in turn, can lead to vaginal discharge, according to some experts.
Your discharge can also indicate something’s not right physically. If you’re experiencing discharge that is odourless, thick, white and has a lumpy texture and ‘a bit like cottage cheese’, it’s likely to be a yeast infection or thrush. You may also experience itching, soreness, burning and irritation. Thrush usually occurs when there’s an overgrowth of yeast that lives normally in your gut. But if this yeast gets out of control, it can lead to unpleasant symptoms. A typical reason is that taking antibiotics, for something unrelated like an earache or tonsillitis, can kill healthy bacteria. The same applies to bacterial vaginosis (BV) an unpleasant looking mucus sort of discharge and can be accompanied by a fishy odour and burning sensation. This is also due to a loss of balance of the normal bacteria of the vagina. It’s also very common for older women when they have less oestrogen, which creates moisture in the vagina and keeps germs in the right balance. Your discharge could even be an indicator of a sexually transmitted infection – (STI) such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea can cause discharge but can lie dormant with no symptoms and can cause much more serious problems higher up in the uterus or fallopian tubes – so it’s better to get checked out.
You may experience spotting (which is a reddish, rusty brown) before or after your period, which is perfectly normal and very common. If you’re on the Pill, you may even experience spotting throughout your cycle. However, a prolonged blood stained discharge is more worrying. This could be a uniformity brown staining, slightly unpleasant smelling discharge. It should be investigated further by your GP or sexual health clinic, as it could be something more serious higher up on the cervix or in the uterus.
Interestingly over washing the vulval region with products that irritate the area such as douching, sprays, creams, soaps, washing powders, etc., also can affect your production of lubrication. So if this troubles you it may be worth investing in inert, organic products, wearing cotton underwear and avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes most of the time.
There are many medications that affect the amount of lubricant we produce. Medications such as antidepressants, cold remedies (sympathomimetics), anticholinergics, antihistamines all affect it by inhibiting its production. Illnesses such as peripheral vascular or hormonal diseases, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis or other neurological diseases can cause vaginal dryness. It can be an early symptom too of the onset of the menopause.
So as you can see your discharge can tell you a lot about how you well you are, what stage in your menstrual or life cycle and how your lifestyle and work-life balance affect it.
I have mentioned the Sexual Health Clinic (SHC). If you are embarrassed to bring this to your GP, your local SHC have fully trained staff who have the time and experience to address your issues quickly and efficiently. For many women having a vaginal examination is uncomfortable and even painful, so having a nurse talk you through this and give time to you can greatly alleviate many of these difficulties.