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Why don’t we talk about vaginal discharge?

IMAGE VIA PANSY

WORDS BY JULIETTE CAPAMOLLA

Despite what you might think, you’re not the only one.

To say I was mildly confronted by TikTok creator @fourtwentayy talking about her coot juice is an understatement. I mean, first and foremost, who calls it that?

But I guess the main thing was that I’ve never really seen anyone talk about vaginal discharge on a public platform, maybe ever. It’s hard to remember a time anyone has talked to me about it at all really. 


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Needless to say, I am not the only one who feels in the dark. Way too many people in the comments were thanking this creator for finally making them feel normal.

Thankfully, my lack of knowledge about vaginal discharge didn’t extend as far as that, so I was shocked that some people genuinely thought that they were the only ones who have discharge. Surely, if every vagina haver experiences this to some extent on the daily, we should know more about it, right? Think again sweet, naive reader.

If you’re anything like me, or the rest of the vagina-laden people in the TikTok comments, you hardly even know what it is or why it’s happening, let alone that almost every other vulva-owner is also wondering the same thing.

@fourtwentayy######♬ Slim Under the Influence – Leizette Candelas

So I sat down with Dr Deborah Bateson, the Medical Director of Family Planning NSW, to have a spritely morning chat about our vaginas. Yes, I took one for the team – for all of us who were too afraid to ask “Does anyone else have coot juice?” in our sex-ed class.

But Dr Bateson says vaginal discharge as easily as she says hello, so we seamlessly launched into an important convo about discharge and healthy vaginas.

What is vaginal discharge and why does it happen?

It’s a completely normal thing. At puberty you get the oestrogen hormone kicking in and the vagina becomes colonised with healthy bacteria. It’s actually very finely balanced. The vagina is a wonderful thing because it’s sort of its own ecosystem. 

Healthy vaginal discharge is made up of fluid from the vagina walls, mucus from their cervix (which is at the top of the vagina) and these healthy bacteria. We produce around one to four millilitres each day. The important thing is it’s under hormonal control and the amount and the consistency can vary throughout the menstrual cycle. It’s important to know that it is healthy and in fact, it’s why we say the vagina cleans itself because it’s self-cleaning and that’s keeping this whole system healthy. 

Why do you think this topic is so stigmatised?

I see lots of women in my practice who feel very anxious about their discharge, wondering if it is normal or abnormal. They’re saying, “Look, we’ve never learnt about this stuff. It certainly wasn’t in anything in school, we can’t find out about it”. It can cause a lot of anxiety, so we do need to have good health literacy around it.

That includes for boys and young men as well, because I see many young women who feel very anxious after a throwaway line from a sexual partner about an odour or a discharge. It can really have a significant impact on people’s lives and it can be very stigmatising. 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, because it’s still a very taboo topic, I would say even much more than periods. I’ve been talking on radio for a long time, and I can now talk about periods which I couldn’t do before. I can sort of talk about vaginas, but vaginal discharge is just a little bit too far. There is still this taboo around it. 

I think the other thing is there’s also a huge number of products in any pharmacy and online about vaginal health – cleansers for your vagina, deodorants for your vagina. It persists with this myth that it’s unnatural, that an odour that smells like you is unnatural and unhealthy, and instead you have to smell like roses. That can actually do more harm than good because anything that you put in the vagina, including these sprays with all sorts of additives, can disrupt that healthy ecosystem and cause an imbalance in the bacteria meaning you can end up with disorders. 

What should people be looking out for?

The first thing is to know what’s normal. First of all, vagina odour is normal and it can change throughout the menstrual cycle. The other thing to know is what is normal vaginal discharge. The body produces clear or whitish vaginal discharge and that’s what keeps things healthy. 

It’s the same with lots of things, like breast health – it’s getting used to what’s normal for you, and if there is a change, it can signify something like thrush. Thrush is where there’s an over colonisation with yeast in the vaginal ecosystem. That’s where you get a discharge which is thick and white and a bit clumpy, which we sometimes say is like cottage cheese. 

Sometimes you actually get an overgrowth of other bacteria in the vagina. They’re normally just hanging around doing no harm, but if you get an overgrowth of certain bacteria it can be bacterial vaginosis. This is associated with a sort of greyish, greenish, thin discharge which can come with a stronger, slightly fishy odour. 

Vaginal discharge can also be associated with a sexually transmitted infection like chlamydia or gonorrhoea. If anyone’s been exposed, had unprotected sex, and certainly, if they’ve got an unusual vaginal discharge, then it could be an STI.  

If you have got a change in your discharge at all, or if there’s a significant difference in the odour or the amount, or there’s blood in the discharge or a burning pain, then it’s good to see a family planning doctor or your GP.  

Do you have any advice for people who are feeling a bit anxious or uncomfortable about their vaginal discharge?

It’s useful to look at really good resources [she recommends this website]. But you may want to come and see someone who’s a little bit more specialised in women’s health, which is a trusted GP or a family planning clinic. But the main thing is that we don’t want people to suffer in silence. Just knowing how to optimise your vaginal health is really important. I think that vulval health literacy is really important.

The more that everyone understands that vaginal discharge is healthy, it’s normal, it’s not dirty or shameful, then that’s a good thing for all of us. We want to make sure that women are not shamed, and there is a recognition of what is healthy.

For more information on vaginal health, head here.

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