By English Taylor
“What the hell are you doing?” asked my sister. She had just barged in on me sitting on the toilet, which we unfortunately share when staying with my parents. I had finished peeing and was in the process of carefully analyzing my underwear. Unphased by her interruption and interrogation, I continued to closely examine the contents of my panties—leaning over to get a better look and even catch a whiff of my vaginal discharge.
“Seriously? Wow. You are such a weirdo,” she said as she began brushing her hair.
After wrapping up my investigation and flushing, I hopped on the counter and added that it was weird she didn’t knock and that she didn’t scrutinize her underwear. (Let’s be real, everyone does this.) Last but not least, I told her that my daily habit wasn’t gross. I use my vaginal discharge as a tool to better understand my health.
Now, before you thrust your face in your underwear, it’s first helpful to know exactly what you’re scrutinizing and why the sticky stuff is even there. Vaginal discharge is a bodily secretion, similar to sweat or tears, that’s totally normal for women of reproductive age to experience. It’s made up of oils secreted by your vaginal glands, fluids released by your cervix or uterus, and vaginal cells. Quite the cocktail, right? Discharge keeps your vagina clean and healthy by carrying out the old cells.
Health experts rely on the smell, consistency, color, and volume of discharge as ways to judge vaginal health, which is oddly similar to how sommeliers judge a glass of vino. According to the Cleveland Clinic, normal vaginal discharge is clear or white-colored with a non-offensive smell. However, the amount and consistency of discharge is different for each person with a V, and can vary depending on where they are in their cycle.
Becoming familiar with your own discharge is key to understanding what’s normal for you. When you notice the smell, consistency, color, or volume of your discharge has shifted, this can sometimes be a sign of infection. Don’t worry—we’ve got you and your V covered. Here’s your “what’s up with my discharge?” cheat sheet:
- Trichomoniasis, a common a treatable sexually-transmitted disease (STD) can be accompanied by a large amount of discharge that’s frothy, green or yellow-colored, and offensive-smelling
- Bacterial vaginosis is a common and non-sexually transmitted vaginal infection that may cause watery, white or grey-colored, and fishy-smelling discharge
- Women with chlamydia and gonorrhea, two types of treatable STDs, may notice green or yellow-colored discharge
- A yeast infection, a non-sexually transmitted vaginal infection, is known to produce a moderate amount of white, curd, or cottage cheese-like discharge (plus it itches like craaaazzzzyyyyy!)
While there are over-the-counter treatment options for non-sexually transmitted infections (like yeast infections), bacterial infections and sexually transmitted diseases require an appointment with a doctor to receive an antibiotic prescription or other medication. All of the conditions described above are super common and totally treatable.
The amount and texture of your discharge can also shift depending where you are in your cycle. This is why paying attention to your vaginal discharge and cervical mucus, even noting its consistency by rubbing it between your fingers (yep, seriously), is a common practice for women using natural family planning or fertility awareness methods of birth control. Here’s an overview from Planned Parenthood:
- During your period, the blood flow covers your vaginal discharge and cervical mucus, so you won’t notice any.
- After your period, you usually have a few days without mucus and discharge in your underwear. These are called “dry days” when you’re less fertile.
- Your body makes more mucus when an egg starts to ripen, before ovulation is about to happen. This mucus is usually yellow, white, or cloudy, and it feels sticky or tacky. (Think cottage cheese.)
- Usually, you have the most mucus right before ovulation. It’s clear and it feels slippery—kind of like raw egg whites—and can be stretched between your fingers. These “slippery days” are your fertile days, when you’re the most likely to get pregnant.
- After about four slippery days, you may suddenly have less mucus that’s cloudy and sticky again, followed by a few more dry days. Then, your period starts and the cycle repeats.
Regularly investigating the sticky (or slippery!) stuff in your underwear doesn’t make you weird or gross. Nope! It means you’re informed and empowered when it comes to your health. Don’t divert your eyes the next time you’ve got some alone time with your skivvies. Hang on to that pair of undies before throwing them in the wash. Go ahead, grab your glasses and flashlight—hold the crotch up to the light! Take a whiff. Stretch it between your fingers!
The next time I see my sister, I’m planning to hug her then casually ask, “So, how are things looking in your underwear these days?”
Do you ever inspect the discharge in your underwear? Tell me why or why not in the comments below!
English Taylor is a writer living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in publications like Refinery29, NYLON, LOLA, and The Atlantic. English is originally from Nashville, TN and her interests include women's health, yoga, and jewelry design.