Vaginal discharge is a natural process that keeps the vulva healthy and clean and wards off harmful bacteria and infections.

Understanding vaginal discharge: What’s normal and when should you seek help

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Normal discharge is a sign of good feminine health. Here are pointers on how to know when something’s off and do’s and don’ts to keep in mind

Understanding and maintaining healthy vaginal discharge is vital to a woman’s reproductive and overall health. However, it is essential to understand the red flags of this signifier of feminine health so you know when to seek help. Dr. Mridula Raghav, consultant obstetrician, gynaecologist and infertility specialist delves into the details.

First, the basics
Glands inside the cervix and vagina produce a clear or off-white fluid that flows out of the vagina in small quantities every day, removing the old cells that line the passage. This natural process keeps the vagina healthy and clean and wards off harmful bacteria and infections. 
Dr. Raghav explains, “The vagina is home to varied bacteria, majorly Lactobacillus. These bacteria help maintain a balanced pH, which is slightly acidic, to stop the growth of harmful bacteria. Normally, under the influence of hormonal changes – mainly oestrogen and progesterone– during the menstrual cycle, the character of vaginal discharge also changes.”

Also read: How to mind your female flora

What is normal vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge for every woman is different in terms of texture and quantity.  Typically, normal discharge can be watery and sticky or thick-ish and pasty in terms of texture, and can appear clear, milky white or off-white in colour. But its appearance can change during the entire month due to changes in hormonal levels. 

For instance, during the initial part of the menstrual cycle, Dr. Raghav explains, vaginal discharge can appear dry, sticky and creamy as the oestrogen hormone is high in quantity.  Towards ovulation phase, Dr. Raghav notes, “it  resembles egg white – transparent and profuse. The main reason for this is to allow better entry of sperm during intercourse and increase the chances of having a successful pregnancy. After ovulation, it becomes thicker and whiter due to an increased level of progesterone hormone. This is the body’s protective mechanism to form mucus near your cervix opening, which helps to keep the pregnancy within the uterus, if it happens.”  

When should you seek help?
Vaginal discharge is a normal bodily process, but if there is any sudden change in the flow, texture, colour or odour, it is pertinent to seek medical help.  Any deviation from regular discharge is worrisome, says Dr. Raghav. Thick curd-like white discharge, which has flakes, can be due to fungal infection. Foul or fishy smelling discharge, which increases after periods and during intercourse, can be due to pH disturbances or an infection called Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), she notes. 

“In case you experience a greenish and yellowish discharge, it could be a sign of a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection (STI). Vaginal discharge with increased itching near the perineal area or pubic area can be associated with fungal infection. Vaginal discharge can also be associated with urinary symptoms. For instance, increased frequency, urgency, and painful urination, usually suggest a concurrent urinary tract infection (UTI),” Dr. Raghav explains. 

Some dos and don’ts to remember
The vagina is a self-cleaning machine that usually requires no external help. However, if the pH balance of the vagina is disturbed, it can lead to complications. There are simple and effective ways to keep the vagina healthy. 

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Dr. Raghav says, “The vagina doesn’t need any extra help to be kept clean. So, if you try to clean your vagina and areas around with vaginal cleansers or douches, it might lead to a pH imbalance and infection.” Maintaining good local hygiene includes cleaning the perineal area while bathing, cleaning it after passing urine with water and drying adequately, using condoms during intercourse, and wearing lightweight cotton underwear. A pro tip that Dr. Raghav shares is to “clean from front to back, as most bacteria sit near the anal opening, and reverse cleaning can increase the chances of infection.”  

Besides following a hygiene routine, you can keep the pH balance of the vagina at optimum levels with some lifestyle changes. Eating a gut-friendly diet rich in Lactobacillus, sleeping 7-8 hours, indulging in aerobic activity, and keeping stress at bay will go a long way in keeping you and your vagina happy and healthy.

“It is said that the vagina gets its healthy Lactobacillus from the gut, so there is a direct link between gut health and vaginal health,” Dr. Raghav says before listing out additional tips.  

1. Good dietary intake of curd, buttermilk and other probiotic foods can help enrich the gut Lactobacillus. In many cases of recurrent infections, prolonged probiotic therapy is prescribed. 

2. At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can reduce stress and related hormonal disturbances, which in turn help maintain good vaginal health.

3. Sleep disturbances can in general cause hormonal disturbances and change the harmony that is maintained during a regular cycle, so getting 7-8 hours of restful sleep is a must.

Shweta Dravid is a self confessed explorer who writes on travel, health, wellness, mindfulness and life truths.

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