Every woman has her own norm when it comes to vaginal discharge. But as you move towards menopause, you may be wondering what different types of discharge might mean and how you can manage them. Here, Dr. Alyssa Dweck, Bonafide Chief Medical Officer weighs in on the different types of vaginal discharge during menopause and what they might mean for your health.
What Is Vaginal Discharge?
In most cases, vaginal discharge is a harmless fluid that comes from the vagina. It's made up of secretions from the cervix, uterus and vagina. It can also contain shed cells, from the vagina or cervix, as well as bacteria.
Vaginal discharge plays an important role in maintaining vaginal health. "It helps clear dead cells, infectious bacteria and maintain a normal microbiome," explains Dr. Dweck. Changes to a woman's typical discharge can occasionally be a sign of a potential health problem.
The majority of women have more vaginal discharge before menopause. During your reproductive years, it's typical for discharge to change in relation to your cycle, often becoming thinner and more copious around the time of ovulation, Dr. Dweck points out.
These kinds of monthly vaginal discharge fluctuations often start to become less noticeable during perimenopause, when hormones become more volatile, Dr. Dweck notes. And after menopause, it's normal for vaginal discharge to decrease significantly. "Some women after menopause will still notice discharge, but with time, it definitely diminishes and may get to a point, if unmanaged, where there's significant dryness," she explains.
Like other bodily changes and new symptoms that occur during this time, a drop in discharge is due to decline in the hormone estrogen. Less estrogen means less blood flow and less natural lubrication, which can cause vaginal tissues to become drier. Additionally, the autoimmune condition Sjogren’s disease, or medications like antihistamines, can cause dryness, especially if you take them to manage chronic allergies.
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Types of Vaginal Discharge During Menopause
Every woman's normal, when it comes to vaginal discharge, is a little bit different – and that's true both before and after menopause. But changes to your discharge’s color or consistency could be signs of possible health conditions. "We still use many of the same general criteria to diagnose infection in the menopausal woman including for bacterial vaginosis or sexually transmitted infections," notes Dr. Dweck.
Here, some of the common vaginal discharge types you might experience during and after menopause, and what they may mean.
Clear or Light Tan Vaginal Discharge
Healthy vaginal discharge after menopause looks similar to healthy vaginal discharge before menopause - there's simply less of it. "Anything that's clear, to creamy, to a very light tan would be typical," Dr. Dweck says. Some may experience a thick and pasty tan discharge.
If you notice clear or pale-yellow fluids and are having trouble figuring out whether the culprit is vaginal discharge or urine leakage, call your healthcare provider. Together you can determine whether you're experiencing urinary incontinence or not and can align on how to manage it.
Yellow or Green Discharge
Vaginal discharge, that's yellow or green during or after menopause, could be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) like gonorrhea or trichomoniasis, especially if you have a newer partner, warns Dr. Dweck. If the discharge has a foul odor and you're experiencing pain or bleeding, you may have an STI. These infections typically require antibiotic treatment, so if you think you may be affected, give your healthcare provider a call.
White, Thick Vaginal Discharge
Discharge that's thick, white, or cottage cheese-like could be indicative of a yeast infection, especially if it's accompanied by itching, burning, or pain, Dr. Dweck says. Yeast infections can often be treated at home with over-the-counter topical antifungal medications. But it's worth running your symptoms by your healthcare provider to get your diagnosis confirmed before starting an OTC med, especially if you haven’t had a yeast infection in the past.
The most common cause of gray vaginal discharge is bacterial vaginosis or BV, Dr. Dweck says. A type of vaginal inflammation, BV is caused by an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina, which can become more common after menopause. The condition can also cause a foul-smelling odor, itching, and burning during urination. BV often requires treatment with antibiotics, so contact your healthcare provider if you're experiencing symptoms.
Bloody Discharge After Menopause
Brown spotting or bloody discharge isn't always cause for concern when you're still getting a period. But after menopause, "blood in vaginal discharge, or brown spotting after menopause needs to be looked into," advises Dr. Dweck. This could be caused by a benign polyp or even irritated vaginal tissue, but in some cases, bloody discharge could potentially be a sign of uterine precancer or cancer. Contact your healthcare provider, who can perform a thorough exam to determine the underlying cause.
Vaginal discharge during or after menopause can mean different things. The key is getting to know what's typical for you and talking with your healthcare provider if you notice changes or discomfort. Together, you can determine if there’s an underlying problem and come up with a plan to address it.