Just like any other physical characteristic, the amount of normal discharge varies a lot from woman to woman. There are some women whose vaginal discharge is so light that they don’t realize they even have a discharge.
On the other hand, many women have constantly damp underwear because of a heavy, but normal, discharge.
So before we get any further, let’s talk about what “normal” actually is.
Little girls don’t have vaginal discharge, because there needs to be enough oestrogen in the body to produce it. In the same way, women after the menopause who don’t use hormones have only a very small discharge. In menstruating women, vaginal discharge has its own “cycle”, with not much just after a period, very clear and stretchy mucous in the middle of the month, and then getting heavy and thicker as the next period approaches. The colour can vary from clear to almost yellow. After the menopause the vaginal discharge gradually stops, but will return if the woman starts hormone replacement therapy.
Vaginal discharge is made up of cervical mucous, discharge from vaginal walls, and sweat from the vulva. Some women have large numbers of mucous glands on the cervix, which increases the amount of vaginal discharge. Similarly, a condition called "cervical ectropion" where the lining of the cervix protrudes outwards will increase the amount of vaginal discharge. Copper-containing IUD’s (intra-uterine device, a contraceptive implanted in your womb by a doctor) may make cervical mucous heavier. Progesterone IUDs tend to make cervical mucous lighter. Anything which makes the vaginal walls inflamed will make vaginal discharge heavier: infections such as thrush candida or bacterial vaginosis for example. Overweight women, especially if they wear stretch pants, will have a heavier vaginal discharge because of the increase in sweat. In pregnancy, vaginal discharge becomes progressively heavier, but it will always have “normal” characteristics.
Vaginal discharge is sometimes smelly. All discharge from every part of our bodies has some sort of smell, and it’s important to understand that there is a “normal” smell to vaginal discharge just like anywhere else. However, if it smells “off” then this is probably not normal. A “fishy” smell may indicate bacterial vaginosis. Remember that the more sweat there is in vaginal discharge, the more likely it is to smell. `
In general, the golden rule is: vaginal discharge is normal if the colour is clear, white or yellow, it is not smelly, and is not associated with vulval discomfort or tummy pain.
Remember the golden rule: vaginal discharge might not be normal if the colour isn’t clear to yellow, if it is smelly, or if there is associated vulval itch or soreness, or tummy pain.
We can’t go into all the possible causes for abnormal discharge, but we want to reassure you that there are lots of harmless causes, not just sexually-transmitted infections and cancer. Your health professional is the best person to give you the right advice for your situation.
Can you do anything to reduce a heavy normal discharge?
Once your doctor has confirmed that your vaginal discharge is normal, there are a few things that might help:
- Get more air down there.
- Wear more skirts
- Limit your use of tight stretch clothes
- Avoid lycra when you exercise
- Don’t use liners every day
- Choose your exercise carefully
- Cycling really increases heat, sweat and friction: can you choose a different sport?
- Lose weight
“But”, you say, “I have to wear liners because it’s so heavy and/or smelly”. The daily use of panty liners increases sweat; this becomes a “catch 22” situation for those women who constantly use liners to mop up a heavy discharge because the liners actually make the problem worse. Why not try taking a spare pair of undies with you, in a snap-lock plastic bag, so you can change at lunch-time? Please also remember that it’s very unlikely that anyone else can smell what you smell.
Some doctors recommend diathermy (burning) of the cervix to try to reduce a heavy normal vaginal discharge. We don’t think this works.Stopping the contraceptive pill usually doesn’t reduce a heavy normal discharge either.