I snuck a look at my friend’s underwear discarded in the corner of her room. My heart racing as I made sure to put them back in exactly the same crumpled mess they had been in—desperately not wanting to get caught in fear of looking like a real pervert. There was a tiny hint of milky white discharge in her underwear, which confirmed my fears—I was definitely an abnormal-discharge weirdo.
I can’t remember when my vaginal discharge first appeared, but I’ve always thought I had a lot of it. However, I do remember the first time I noticed the egg-white—aged 17, between classes at school in London, England—I stared in horror as this stringy substance came out of my body . . .
Of course, instead of asking anyone about my discharge—friend, parent, doctor, teacher—I suppressed my worries and allowed it to become another source of teenage shame that gnawed away at me every time I went to the bathroom or got undressed. I’d already been late to the puberty-party, I surely couldn’t add something else to the list of things making me an outsider by talking out loud about my discharge.
Back then, discharge was a dirty bodily output in my mind, and something to be chronically embarrassed about. But here I sit today, wondering where this dangerous line of thinking came from? It must have come from a lack of understanding, a lack of education, a lack of conversation. . . a big old taBOO.
After I started taking the contraceptive pill in my late teens (my physician’s prescription for my period pain of course . . .), I had an elevated volume of discharge throughout my cycle, from period to period. Due to my longstanding shame, I kept shutting it out; I didn’t seek to educate myself on it; I was too embarrassed even to talk to Dr Google about it. Now I know: that up to a teaspoon per day seems to be normal, which looks like quite a lot particularly in black underwear(!), and that the contraceptive pill often results in increased discharge because thickening cervical fluid is part of the way it prevents pregnancy!
The first time I brought up my discharge with a physician was aged 30 during a pap smear, and it was still hard for me to verbalize—I looked at the floor and muttered under my breath “I think I have a lot of discharge”. The physician asked me whether it looked like cottage cheese or smelled foul—it didn’t—and suggested I try boric acid suppositories if I was worried about the volume. I’d heard about using boric acid for plants and smelly feet, but now it was being suggested that I insert it into my vagina?!
From that moment I decided to get to grips with my discharge: I wanted to understand it not just deal with it and, despite another rollercoaster of discharge changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding, I think I’m finally there.
Now I know that my cervical fluid helps inform me of my hormonal balance aka where I’m at in my menstrual cycle, when something’s a little out of whack with my fiercely protective vaginal flora/microbiome and needs my extra attention and support, or just that my body is doing a wonderful job of taking care of business!
I wish my teenage-self had known what I know today—how to read and interpret what my discharge is telling me about my body—I wish I’d given it the respect it deserved and not been ashamed by it. For this story, I really wanted to highlight the unnecessary shame I’ve felt around my discharge for my whole menstruating life, in the hopes that just one reader (or their little sibling, or kid) doesn’t go through the same experience I did. All hail discharge!
PS. I also wish I’d had this resource as a teen, photos of healthy discharge in underwear: The Discharge Gallery.
Until next time,
🩺 SCIENCE AND SPIRIT 👁️
🧑⚕️ from Looni’s medical adviser, Dr Stephanie Colantonio
Cervical mucus (CM) is a stunning aspect of our reproductive physiology! If you look under a microscope, you can see beautiful crystal formations. Around ovulation, those crystals resemble ferns. It's magical!
Fluctuating hormones throughout your menstrual cycle cause CM to change depending on what phase you're in. Rising estrogen in the follicular phase increases mucus production, which looks like creamy, white lotion. This is also what adolescents tend to see in the year preceding their first period.
Just before ovulation, it turns into a clear, stringy mucus, similar to egg whites. This "peak" mucus creates a happy swimming environment for sperm to travel to the oviduct (Fallopian tube) to reach an egg.
After ovulation, you may notice little to no CM. This is because progesterone thickens mucus to form a plug at the cervical opening, preventing sperm from entering the uterus.
Tracking CM is an essential component of using fertility awareness to prevent pregnancy or promote conception. It also supports libido and helps prevent infection. This crucial but often overlooked aspect of our reproductive physiology deserves more attention!
Cervical mucus isn't the only fluid in your undies. Feeling sexy or aroused? Arousal fluid from glands near the vaginal opening tends to be more watery than cervical mucus.
Some of the white, crumbly fluid is from vaginal sloughing - when older cells from the vaginal lining naturally shed away to be replaced by new ones. This is entirely healthy and normal.
It's also worth noting that everyone's fluids smell a little different, and your own odors may change depending on the time of your cycle. Your vaginal pH stays on the acidic side to protect it from infection. This means it may smell a little tangy or sour. Acidity is also the reason why discharge sometimes lightens the color of underwear by interacting with fabric dye. This is perfectly normal!
What discharge needs attention from your doctor? Thick white discharge that resembles cottage cheese and may have a yeast smell. Any fluid that is green, grey, or yellow. A fishy odor is worth checking out. Also, brown or bloody discharge outside of your period (note that some spotting around ovulation is usually normal).
A great resource for learning more about cervical mucus is Lisa Hendrickson-Jack's book, The Fifth Vital Sign. She provides in-depth information about the different types of cervical mucus and the science behind them.
🌱 Do you need more lubrication down there? Certain herbal infusions can support cervical mucus production. Two of my favorites are Linden and Marshmallow root. Add a handful of either or both to a quart of cold water, let it infuse overnight, then strain out the plant material. It's safe to enjoy daily!