MINI POST SERIES: Things I wish I had learned in Sex Ed/Health Class–Vaginal Fluids: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
WARNING: Post contains graphic images of infections discussed
What should it look like?
There is are stereotypes regarding what normal vaginal discharge should look like, taste, or smell like but the the vaginal/cervical fluid changes throughout not only a woman’s life but throughout each menstruation cycle, as well as being different from person to person based on your specific hormone levels, diets, health status, arousal, hydration, etc. So you can see how it is difficult to pin point what is “normal”.
I’ll start with what is medically agreed upon as normal variations for healthy vaginal/cervical fluid throughout each cycle (except the period) but here are the nitty gritty basics:
*Usually clear to milky
*Dyer to more abundant discharge
*Musky, “earthy”, sweaty scent.
The graphic below isn’t the greatest but hey, its a computer screen, not IRL. It shows the AVERAGES of what vaginal fluids look like throughout the menstrual cycle
I know what some of you are thinking though: “What about me? I soak my underwear almost every day with discharge, is that normal?”
That doesn’t mean anything is wrong, you just produce more fluid. You can talk about it with your gynecologist as there are things that can be done to help make you more comfortable.
What should it smell like?
Vaginas and vulvas have a scent-they just do. This is normal and very healthy especially if you are not on any form of birth control. Many people have reported a lack of scent while on birth control and that is just due to the conditions being created to the hormone levels and a lot of times a more dryer vagina. If you still feel self conscious about the natural scent consider washing the vulva with water twice a day and maybe apply a very thin layer of organic, unrefined, virgin coconut oil to the area and always wear cotton underwear and clothing that allows as much air flow as your dress code permits.
Side Note: This is my favorite and go-to for coconut oil. It has a very mild coconut scent to it, it’s verified organic, virgin and unrefined. If you choose to have some coconut oil on hand for vaginal use, please have that jar be separate from ones you might have for cooking and try to make sure that hands are clean when using so you don’t contaminate the oil that you apply to your vulva and vagina.
Your natural, normal scent can change slightly throughout your cycle so most of the time if there is something out of balance such as a BV infection (which causes a distinct odor) you will be able to tell the difference between natural scent and the foul/rotten/fishy odor. You will not only typically feel irritation (and let’s be honest, you’ll also feel irritated lol) but when you undress, the scent that something is off will be noticeable. And as I always suggest-if in doubt, go to the clinic.
Another concern is: “How do I know what a normal vagina smells like?”
It’s almost impossible to describe because there is so many things creating the scent but it has been described as:
- Like Sweat
- Sweet and Sour
- Fishy (The caveat to this descriptor is that if noticed it should be mild, a strong fishy scent can indicate a BV infection so look for other symptoms to help you decide if this is the case)
- Indescribable lol
I want you to be brave and open minded for a minute. If you are concerned about your scent slow down and take a few moments to really pay attention to the scent of your vaginal fluids- you can pick out some of the descriptors listed above. Don’t go into this trial with the mindset that you smell awful or that vaginal fluids in general smell awful as some women tend to think. You may continue to think that vaginal fluids don’t smell good but to really determine if your scent is off you need to slow down and really pick out the notes like smelling a fine wine or whiskey! The analogy is weird, I know, but not automatically putting the label on it that it smells bad can really open you up to properly determining if something is off with you.
I am almost positive, however, that if you don’t currently have a confirmed infection that yours smells perfectly normal. And if you are still in doubt, make an appointment with a gynecologist for a basic check up or annual and while you are there simply ask about the normality of your scent. That’s part of their job, to make sure you are healthy. Questions are never weird and won’t make the dr. uncomfortable or have them thinking you are stupid. Gynecologists had to go to additional medical school to have that title which means they have seen, heard, smelled, and tested for every issue or question you can bring to them so please, let them help you!
There are things in our diets that we digest and excrete them they affect our natural scent such as onions and garlic-these are biggies, sugars can make your fluids more acidic-physically and taste and scent, there are some other foods depending on how sensitive you are, but most of the odors contributed by foods go away within a couple of days after not eating them. If it bothers you a lot make sure to drink plenty of water but time is really all that will eliminate the garlic and onion smell from your normal scent (half of your body weight in ounces per day of plain water is the recommended goal amount).
What should it taste like?
This is not a complete list of what vaginal fluids can and do taste like but here are some repeat descriptions:
- Like a 9-volt battery
- It can take on the taste of the food you ate, especially the ones mentioned above like garlic and onions
- Mildly fishy, I mean seriously does no one remember the chauvinistic joke that vag smells/tastes like tuna?? So just because you have a scent or taste of fish does NOT mean there is anything wrong or that an infection is present! Can we put that debate to rest finally?
Hopefully you can see that not only is there a great variance in what is average for fluid/discharge consistency but scent and taste as well and can start feeling a little less self-conscious about these things.
There is much less vaginal fluid once a woman goes into and through menopause due to the dramatic decrease of estrogen. Typically a trip to the dr. is necessary if a woman who has completed menopause and is noticing an increase in vaginal discharge if she isn’t using an estrogen replacement. The little bit that can be present on a daily basis will be on the dryer side and will be sticky and tacky. The side effects from the lack of estrogen and vaginal fluids is a whole ‘nother post as there is a lot that is happening and many problems that can arise but for now I’ll stay focused on what you can expect to see for discharge. As a woman goes through peri-menopause (the in-between time) and she is still producing estrogen, the production is up and down in levels and the discharge amount and consistency will be all over the place. From the super dry and tacky to the really slippery and abundant in the span of a day sometimes! So if the discharge isn’t causing any other issues for you or there isn’t any other symptoms, while it can be annoying, this crazy shift in consistency is normal during peri-menopause. There aren’t really any images specifically for this phases discharge but you can refer to the 1st image for references to the dry and sticky type and the watery thin types.
The scent typically stays the same as it was for you although it typically decreases due to the lesser amounts of fluids/discharge but it can increase in intensity as well. Not very clear, I know but the main take away is that the scent itself typically stays the same.
Symptoms can include: itching, burning, irritation in the vagina but also the surrounding vulva, especially during intercourse, urination and wiping, and an increase in these sensations when the area is touched or wiped. There is also typically redness, swelling, pain, and soreness. Usually a thick/chunky, white, cottage cheese like appearance. Sometimes in the very beginning the discharge can be mild and when examined in your underwear or with a mirror, instead of the cottage cheese appearance there can be little white specks with the fluid/discharge instead. Rarely a slight sour smell can be noticed with a yeast infection but a sourness to your discharge without the other symptoms is not an indicator of a yeast infection-that could simply be something you ate.
Symptoms can include: an increase in discharge, thin, watery, usually gray (can be whitish or slightly green tinted) and an odor will be noticed in your underwear. The discharge is described as foul smelling, strongly fishy smelling, rotten scented, some say like bread or dairy, etc. -this is why I say women usually know when the scent is abnormal. The odor is usually more noticeable during or after sex or when pulling down underwear. Sometimes the scent can be very strong and be noticed outside of clothing, this is OK and nothing to feel bad about-just get medical attention for the infection. Itching, burning, inflammation around the vulva and vestibule (please see my post about ‘what do vaginas/vulvas look like‘ for a very detailed diagram if you are unfamiliar of these terms) and some women even experience arousal! The inflammation can cause mild internal swelling of the tissues as the body tries to fight off the infection, the nerves are also mildly triggered due to the inflammation and can cause the feeling of arousal. Some women with BV, however, have no signs or symptoms and some women don’t recognize their symptoms as an infection due to only very mild odors and signs.
Symptoms can include: extra discharge than normal for you. Burning or painful urination or painful intercourse, usually from raw or inflamed tissues. Fever, abdominal or low back pain and nausea. The one I see women report most often is vaginal bleeding between periods as a lot of the time a woman does not exhibit any signs or symptoms of this infection(nor do men) and only is aware of something wrong when she bleeds between periods. A good reason to use protection when you conduct sexual activity with anyone-they may not be showing signs or symptoms!
Symptoms are difficult to identify as being a gonorrhea infection in many first time cases but can include: swelling of the vulva and lower abdomen or pelvic pain, bleeding in between periods can also occur as with chlamydia. Many times the most noticed sign is the greenish/yellow discharge-see image above. A couple of symptoms you might not think would be related are conjunctivitis (pink eye) or a sore and swollen throat and throat lymph nodes, sort of like when you have strep throat and this is usually due to infection via oral sex and you have the infection in your throat. Yes, that’s right, you can have gonorrhea in your throat!
Since chlamydia and gonorrhea don’t typically cause a scent to vaginal fluid you can generally rely on the other symptoms along with abnormal colored or amount of discharge for you to let you decide if a visit to the dr. is required.
Love the V
The vagina is it’s own self cleaning ecosystem and it can do some pretty strange things, smell some pretty strange ways, and provide us with an endless supply of the question
“what is this thing doing NOW?!”
Much of the time everything is fine, and normal, and as it should be, we just aren’t aware that everyday things, like eating garlic or onions can cause a change in our discharge appearance and scent so we freak out. Inflammation from anything like seasonal allergies, exercise, bike riding, sex, stress, colds/other viruses, COVID-19, a plethora of medical conditions that may cause inflammation, the list goes on, can then cause the acidity level to be off making the vulva feel a little itchy, maybe a little stingy or irritated but as long as that is as far as the symptoms go and they resolve within a short period of time, usually everything is still normal and is no cause for concern.
This blog is not medical advice so please, if you are ever concerned go see your dr. (preferably a gynecologist) but general physicians can handle most of the trouble caused by our ‘sensy bits”!