Have you ever sat on the toilet, peeked at your panties and said, “Yuck”? Join the club — because vaginal discharge is a fact of life for most women.
Still, it’s not always easy to tell what’s normal and what’s not. “Being aware that ‘normal’ can change with age and other factors helps prevent unnecessary anxiety when everything’s fine… and alerts you to the need for medical attention when there’s a problem,” said Cherie A. LeFevre, MD, director of the Vulvar and Vaginal Disorders Specialty Center at St. Louis University School of Medicine. Here’s what you need to know…
WHEN NOT TO WORRY
Vaginal discharge — a combination of fluid, cervical mucus and cells from the vaginal walls — helps keeps the vagina healthy as new cells replace old ones that are shed.
Typically, discharge has a creamy texture and yellow-white hue. You probably know that discharge tends to get more abundant and slippery when you’re sexually aroused… clear and stretchy during ovulation… and thinner and more scant after menopause.
But: You may not realize that vaginal discharge can change and yet be no cause for concern when you…
- Take certain antibiotics that can make discharge thinner.
- Experience emotional stress, which can increase discharge.
- Take birth control pills — they contain the hormone progesterone, which makes discharge thicker and more yellow.
- Use hormone replacement therapy, which increases vaginal secretions.
- Wear silk or nylon underpants or tight-fitting pants, which restrict airflow and increase sweating and other secretions in the genital area.
If you are bothered by your normal abundant discharge: Two or three times a day, wash your genital area with unscented soap, pat dry and put on fresh underwear. This won’t reduce discharge, but it will make it less annoying. Dr. LeFevre cautioned, “Do not try to deal with discharge by douching, wearing panty liners (even unscented ones) or using feminine hygiene spray. These can cause irritation, encourage bacterial growth and increase discharge.”
If you are bothered by scant discharge: To relieve postmenopausal vaginal dryness that causes itching and makes sex uncomfortable, rub a dab of olive oil or other natural vegetable oil product in and around the vagina twice daily and before intercourse. Dr. LeFevre explained, “This won’t cause irritation the way over-the-counter vaginal moisturizing products sometimes can.”
WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
Of course you would contact your doctor if you had obvious signs of vaginal trouble, such as truly foul-smelling discharge, itching, burning or pain. But by staying alert to more subtle signs of trouble, you can catch a developing problem before it has time to progress. Watch for changes in the discharge’s odor (such as a fishy or yeasty smell)… color (greenish or grayish)… and consistency (very thick, frothy or cottage cheese-like). If any such symptoms start to appear, call your doctor. You may need to be tested and treated for…
- Bacterial vaginosis, an infection that develops when the vaginal environment becomes too alkaline, allowing bacteria to thrive. Treatment: Oral or topical antibiotics.
- Yeast infection, an overgrowth of the candida fungus that is a normal part of the vaginal environment. Note: Some women are more prone to yeast infections when taking antibiotics. Treatment: Nonprescription topical or prescription oral antifungal medication. Taking a daily oral probiotic supplement also may help treat or prevent vaginal yeast infections.
- A foreign object — such as a forgotten tampon or diaphragm — mistakenly left inside and lodged high up in the vagina. Treatment: Removal of the object and medication for any resulting infection.
- Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease caused by a single-celled parasite that burrows under the vaginal lining. Treatment: Antibiotics for you and your sex partner — so he doesn’t reinfect you.