It’s time to talk about discharge. Discharge normally refers to cervical mucus but can also be made up of day-old sperm and vaginal lubrication or arousal fluid too. Discharge changes throughout the menstrual cycle and getting to know your discharge can help you understand what’s happening to your body at any given time. We’re big champions of reminding you that there’s no such thing as a 'normal vagina' because everyone’s body is different, but when it comes to cervical mucus, there is discharge you wanna see and discharge you don’t.
Now, super fast menstrual cycle recap for those in the back: the menstrual cycle can be split up into four phases. Phase one is menstruation – that’s the bleeding bit. Next comes the follicular phase, and it’s when your hormones are on the rise and the lining of the womb is thickening. The ovulatory phase occurs mid-cycle and is when you’re at your most fertile and an egg is released ready to be fertilised by a sperm. The luteal phase is the last ten or so days of your cycle and is when all your reproductive hormones start to plummet and your body is preparing for your period.
Your discharge will likely be different at each of these stages, changing slightly in colour, consistency, and quantity. A sign of healthy discharge in general is that it’s white, creamy, and/or clear in colour and will be slightly sticky for most of the menstrual cycle. Discharge shouldn’t be itchy and, while it is normal for it to smell a little sour or musty, it shouldn’t smell really ‘bad’ (e.g. super fishy or rotten-smelling). It’s also totally normal to get discharge before you’ve started your periods, so if you’re a young person who hasn’t had a period yet, don’t be anxious if you’re already getting a lot of daily discharge.
Phase 1: Menstruation
During this phase, you’re bleeding out of your vagina. So, while the stuff caught by your tampons isn’t just blood, we don’t see what we know of as ‘discharge’ at this stage. When your period comes to an end, it’s normal to get brown or slightly bloody discharge. Not everyone will experience this, but it’s perfectly common for your period to take its sweet time in ending, with little bits of blood (which can appear brown if the blood being expelled is a little old) continuing to leave the vagina for a couple of days after your period has ended.
Phase 2: Follicular
Post-period, discharge tends to be quite dry in texture and there is usually less of it than, say, at the midpoint of the cycle (more on that in a moment). Oestrogen, which is produced by the follicle growing in your ovary as it prepares to release an egg, is rising and your cervix will start to produce more fluid. Discharge will start to get more watery and elastic in consistency, giving you a ‘wet’ sensation in your underwear. During this time it’s likely to be more creamy in colour than pure white.
Phase 3: Ovulatory
As you approach the middle of your cycle, which is when ovulation occurs, discharge gradually gets thicker. There is up to 20 times more cervical mucus produced in the run up to ovulation than afterwards – the highest quantity throughout the cycle. It will become clear, stretchy, and slippery at ovulation because your body is doing everything it can to get you pregnant whether you want it to or not. This kind of thin, slippery discharge functions as a natural lubricant to help the sperm get up the vaginal canal and into the womb easier. Many people use their discharge as a rough guide to help them understand when they are ovulating – the drier the discharge, like right after your period, the less likely it is that you’re ovulating. But whatever you do, please, please don’t rely on this as a method of birth control if you’re having sex with people who could get you pregnant. Discharge is an indication of what is happening but not a guarantee of ovulation or lack thereof. Remember that sperm can survive in the body for up to five days and it is possible to experience early ovulation. Your discharge will be at its ‘stretchiest’ in consistency when you ovulate – which is approximately day 14 in a 28 day cycle – and you’ll often hear it compared to egg whites in consistency.
Phase 4: Luteal
In the days after ovulation, you’ll likely notice a significant decrease in the amount of discharge produced. Post-ovulation rising levels of progesterone can contribute to the discharge appearing whiter and this can last right up until your period starts again. It might be thicker and drier in consistency and texture than the wetter feeling you get around the time of ovulation because progesterone also inhibits the secretion of fluid. Right before your period is due it’s common for the amount of discharge to start increasing in quantity again, though not to the same degree as during ovulation.
It’s important to remember the golden rule that every single body is different and will act in different ways. If you’re self-conscious about your discharge or any one of the many other weird and wonderful things our bodies do, remember you’re not alone. Lot’s of discharge is normal, unless you experience a sudden or unusual increase, smells are normal, and different consistencies are normal. And if you’re struggling with body-acceptance, check out the youtube channel of ohne babe Jess, where she’s candid about all things vulvas, discharge, and periods and you’ll find a community of body-honest babes telling it like it is. Don’t let shame and lack of education when it comes to the female reproductive system get you down. Your body is amazing just the way it is, vaginal discharge n all.
Image credit: Photographer Candice Milon