So, is vaginal discharge normal? The most Googled discharge questions, answered by a nurse

Did you know the vagina is a self-cleaning organ?

Is vaginal discharge normal? A woman stands behind a curtain
(Image credit: Getty Images/EyeEm)

Did you know the vagina is a self-cleaning organ?

You might already know about the not-so-nice kind of vaginal discharge (we're looking at you, thrush and bacterial vaginosis) but what about the other every day discharge? Is vaginal discharge normal, and what kind do you need to be worrying about or seeking treatment for?

Some facts for you: the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, so actually keeping it too clean can disrupt the natural pH balance that keeps you infection-free. Discharge is there to help clean - and lubricate - your vagina.

As Helen Knox, clinical nurse specialist in contraception and sexual health puts it, "'The vagina is a clever passage and is a relatively acidic environment which keeps itself healthy in normal circumstances. It does this by producing different types of secretions, with women experiencing a normal cycle of vaginal discharge following the same pattern, menstrual cycle after menstrual cycle."

We bought you expert-led guides to how to masturbate, what to do if your vagina burns after sex and how to use a tampon. Next up: vaginal discharge - because everyone gets it sometimes. Want to read a little more on what's perfectly normal and what's not-so-much? Keep reading for some expert advice and vaginal care tips from the nurse, and don't miss our guide to why sex hurts, while you're here.

What is discharge - and is vaginal discharge normal? 

Discharge is a clear liquid secreted by the glands on the wall of your cervix, which, on its way out of your body, mixes with old cells and bacteria. Once outside of your body, it may dry white or slightly yellow in colour.

It should normally be clear or white and be pretty much odourless, or at least, not smell unpleasant, and may change consistency with your menstrual cycle.

If you're wondering if vaginal discharge is normal, know this: a little vaginal discharge is a perfectly normal sign your down there is doing it's job, according to the nurse.

Is vaginal discharge normal? Woman practising yoga in studio

My vaginal discharge is yellow - help!

If your discharge is coloured or has a strange smell, or if you're feeling sore or itchy down there, then you may have an infection. Everything else? Pretty damn normal.

FYI, all vaginas have an odour so don't feel too paranoid about yours. Obviously, sometimes this can be stronger than others, depending on monthly hormonal changes or how much you're sweating.

Where does vaginal discharge come from?

It's basically mucus produced from your cervix, which is the lower part of your womb that leads to your vagina. Your body produces the mucus to keep you lubricated and safe from infection.

As Knox explains, discharge is largely triggered by your menstrual cycle. "A cycle starts with the first day of a period. Periods generally last for four to five days, after which there’s a slight dryness, followed by an increasing amount of vaginal discharge," she explains. "This is usually white in colour, before changing to a clear, stretchy consistency. This is ‘fertile mucus’ (or ‘Spinnbarkeit’), and it is made within the crypts inside the cervical canal (neck of the womb)."

Did you know? It's actually pretty hard to get pregnant without the clear, stretchy mucus Knox talks about. Why? "Sperm wiggle their way in to it after ejaculation and they can live off it for up to seven days, waiting for ovulation (egg release) to happen," she explains. "It gives them an access route to travel through the cervix in to the body of the uterus and off on their journey up to the fallopian tubes, in their hunt for an egg to fertilise."

And after you ovulate? What happens then? "The cervical mucus changes from clear and stretchy in to a dryer, thicker white or creamy type of mucus, through which sperm can’t swim," she shares. If fertilisation occurs, this thick mucus remains.

"And if no fertilisation occurs, a period is triggered, with the lining of the womb shedding away and the whole cycle starting over again a few days later." Neat.

Is vaginal discharge normal? Smiling woman dancing in an empty parking

Who is most likely to experience vaginal discharge?

Well, all people who have a vagina, really.

"Some women notice more moisture than others, depending on their ages, fertility, and other factors," explains Knox. "It’s important not to upset the normal changes and healthy bacterial balance within the vaginal environment."

You can do this by using products like:

  • bubble bath
  • scented soap
  • douches
  • wearing thongs
  • wearing tight clothing
  • having unprotected sex.

"All of the above can disrupt the healthy bacterial balance, which will mean your usual vaginal discharge could change," she goes on. If this is the case, you'll likely notice itching or a cottage cheese like discharge commonly associated with thrush. "It'll likely smell a bit unusual, too," she shares.

Similarly, if it smells fishy, you may have BV or bacterial vaginosis, the nurse shares. "BV is a vaginal imbalance and, because of the symptoms, women often wash excessively to try and get rid of them, especially after sex when the symptom may be more noticeable."

Do note here: the more they wash, the worse it gets, she shares - so be mindful of this.

When is vaginal discharge normal? 

Is vaginal discharge before my period normal? 

In a nutshell, and as explained above, yes. This is when you'll often get the most discharge because of the hormone changes in your body, shares the nurse.

Is vaginal discharge in pregnancy normal?

Again, yes. "Almost all women experience having more vaginal discharge during pregnancy," she shares. It happens because the neck of your womb (your cervix) is getting softer, along with your vaginal walls, so you produce more discharge to make sure no infections can travel into the womb. It's quite clever, when you think about it.

So, when should I see a doctor? 

If you're at all worried that your discharge may not be normal, or if it's causing you discomfort of any kind, do book a GP appointment.

"It’s important to see a healthcare practitioner for tests before self-treating, just to be sure there’s nothing that needs antibiotic treatment to clear, and to make sure that your sexual partner doesn’t also require treatment," adds the nurse.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.