The vagina is an amazing sex organ that is self-cleansing and self-regulating. The pH balance of the vagina is acidic (3-4 on the pH scale) in order to discourage infections from occurring, and this acidic environment is created by naturally-occurring bacteria. In contrast to the vagina, sperm prefer an alkaline environment, which is why semen has a pH level of 7.2-7.8. Because of the difference in pH levels in the vagina, sperm typically will not survive in the vagina for more than one to two hours. When a woman is closest to ovulation during her menstrual cycle, the pH level in her cervical mucus is not as high as during the rest of her cycle, thus making the environment friendlier to sperm. In this friendlier pH level, sperm can survive for up to 2 days.
A healthy vagina produces secretions, or discharge, as part of the cleansing process. This discharge is similar in purpose to saliva, which cleanses and regulates the environment of the mouth. Interference of the pH balance in the vagina can create an environment that welcomes infection. Douching is one example of this interference.
Vaginal discharge does not contain any waste products. All women have some vaginal discharge, which is made from fluid produced by the walls of the vagina; cervical mucus; uterine and tubal fluid; secretions from glands in the vulva; oil and sweat from glands in the vulva; cells shed from the walls of the vagina; and healthy bacteria. Thus, vaginal discharge is mostly salt water, mucus and cells.
Amounts of daily discharge vary from woman to woman. Some women create little discharge while others have a heavy amount of discharge on a daily basis. According to the book Vaginas: An Owner’s Manual, the average amount of vaginal discharge a woman of reproductive age produces in eight hours weighs roughly 1.55 grams (which amounts to about 3/8 of a teaspoon). The book further explains that a woman produces the greatest amount of vaginal discharge around the time of ovulation, 1.96 grams in weight or 1/2 of a teaspoon.
Women need to pay attention to their own bodies to know what is “normal” for them on an individual level so they will know when to question what is happening to their bodies. If there is ever any doubt about a change in her body or its functions, a woman should seek medical advice as soon as possible from her reproductive health professional.
Normal discharge may appear clear, cloudy white, and/or yellowish when dry on clothing. Vaginal discharge may contain white flecks and can be stringy and thin at times. Discharge may change in physical appearance at different times during a woman’s menstrual cycle because the pH balance of the vagina fluctuates during this cycle and this impacts the amount of discharge produced. Other reasons for physical change in discharge are pregnancy, emotional stress, nutritional levels, sexual arousal and use of medications such as birth control or antibiotics.
Just like dried saliva or nasal mucous, discharge will usually wash out of clothing and sheets with the use of a detergent. For heavier levels of discharge, a stain remover such as Shout Advanced can be applied to the affected areas prior to laundering to ensure the discharge is completely removed from panties or sheets during the wash cycle.
Changes in color or amount of discharge could signal a vaginal infection. Symptoms of a vaginal infection include discharge accompanied by itching, rash or soreness; persistent, increased discharge; burning on skin during urination; white, clumpy discharge similar in appearance to cottage cheese; and grey/white or yellow/green discharge with a foul odor. A woman experiencing these symptoms should see a medical health professional as soon as possible because some vaginal infections can lead to fertility loss.
For more about the vagina, read my previous blog about all things vagina.