"The vagina is a self-cleaning oven," OB-GYN Dr. Lisa Masterson says. But how do you know what's considered normal versus abnormal discharge? The viscosity, color and smell of vaginal discharge can indicate the state of a woman’s health and where she is in her menstrual cycle.
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. "A healthy, reproductive-age vagina sloughs cells," urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman explains. If the color, smell or consistency seems significantly unusual, however, or if it is accompanied by itching or burning, you could be noticing an infection or other condition.
• White or grey discharge: Indicates the beginning and/or end of mentrual cycle. If the texture is thick or cottage cheese-like and accompanied with itchiness, it could signal a yeast infection.
• Yellow or green discharge: Indicates infection, especially if accompanied by a foul odor.
• Brown discharge: Indicates old blood at the end of menstruation.
Bacterial vaginosis, an infection of the vaginal tissue, can also cause discharge. Additional causes of discharge include allergies and hormonal imbalance.
Menstrual blood is made up of components such as endometrial cells, cervical mucus and vaginal secretions, and is an important vital sign for women. "It basically tells us you're healthy," Dr. Lisa says. Or it could be a warning sign of a more serious condition. "If you're going through more than a pad or a tampon an hour, or you're having clots, then this can be life-threatening to a woman," Dr. Lisa says. This can be a sign of anemia or occur after a hysterectomy and necessitate a blood transfusion.
The color of a woman's menstrual blood can reveal information about her health, as well. A constant, bright red flow can indicate flooding, which is heavy bleeding that occurs when the blood doesn't clot, often signaling a liver problem.
Consult with your physician or OB-GYN for information on medications and other helpful treatments for heavy periods.
• Dr. Lisa displays the different sizes of menstrual blood clots and what they mean.
Another type of fluid that women should be aware of is amniotic fluid, which surrounds and protects a baby in the womb. The fluid serves many functions: It helps the baby's lungs develop properly, maintains a constant temperature in the womb and is used to determine if the fetus has any genetic defects.
"[Amniotic fluid] is very important," Dr. Lisa says. "It's one of the things we [measure] in ultrasounds. It's very important that it remains at a constant level."
After giving birth, women experience lochia, which is vaginal discharge and/or bleeding expelled by the uterus after delivery. Women generally have to wear a pad for a number of weeks after pregnancy.
"The uterus is trying to shrink and expel all the mucus and the blood, and the placental things that are coming out," Dr. Lisa explains. "It's kind of like menstrual fluid, but a little different. As long as it's not clotting and doesn't have a foul odor, then you're OK," she adds. "It's an absolutely normal thing."
If treatment is required, it will depend on the type of infection.
For yeast infections, your doctor may prescribe either topical antifungal ointment to treat the infection and soothe itching or an oral, single-dose antifungal medication.