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When it comes to taking care of your health, asking questions never hurts. But is it always worth a visit to your doctor? We’re asking experts to weigh in on your burning questions—from feminine to general health and everything in between—so you can get advice from a pro before you go. The doctor will see you now.

If you are a woman past puberty, you may have noticed a white discharge that seems to come and go each month. If you’re sexually active, you may have worried that it’s a sign of an infection (and it could be). If not, you’ve probably wondered what the heck is going on.

Dr. Marguerite Duane, a family physician, executive director of Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science (FACTS), and Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, offers an online elective “Fertility Awareness for Women’s Health and Family Planning.” We asked her some questions about when to worry and when to stop freaking out about vaginal discharge.

Most of the time, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. The amount, odor, and consistency (from milky and tacky to clear and stretchy) will vary according to where you are in your cycle. Read on to find out when abnormal discharge should be a cause for concern.

Q. What is the discharge that I sometimes see on my underwear or on the tissue when I use the restroom?

Dr. Duane says, “Once a woman goes through puberty, due to normal fluctuations in hormones, she should produce cervical secretions every month. This is normal.” Cervical secretions are “periodic and cyclical,” as they have a direct relationship to the hormones—such as estrogen and progesterone—that influence the course of your cycle.

During a normal fertility cycle, as your body prepares to ovulate, your cervix secretes mucus that contains clear pathways for sperm to enter the uterus. That window for fertility lasts three to five days on average. This mucus changes over time throughout the fertility window, so most women will see everything from yellow, sticky mucus to clear, slippery, egg-white-like mucus during their cycle. Fertility-based awareness methods such as the Billings Ovulation Method and the Creighton Model are based on identifying these secretions and can even help identify underlying medical issues. For instance, while clear, slippery mucus is typical for peak fertility, a brown discharge can signal a hormonal imbalance and, in some cases, endometriosis. Much of the information we have now on cervical mucus goes back to fifty years of research by Dr. Erik Odeblad, a medical biophysicist who devoted his life to understanding the various cervical secretions that are part of a woman’s natural cycle.

Q. I haven’t noticed any secretions. Why not?

If you’re on hormonal birth control, you may not have secretions. Dr. Duane recounted a situation in which a mother brought her daughter in for a visit after noticing discharge on her daughter’s underwear when doing the laundry. The mother was convinced her daughter was having sex; the discharge wasn’t anything she recognized herself. As it turned out, the mother had been on hormonal birth control for years and didn’t know that secretions were simply a sign of a properly functioning reproductive system.

Dr. Duane says that women using hormonal birth control may not have any secretions, as the drugs “can suppress the functioning of the hormones her body would normally produce that affect the cervix,” which is where mucus is produced. If not on hormonal birth control, a woman who doesn’t experience vaginal discharge at all should have cause for concern.

“The only distinctive thing [about abnormal discharge] is a strong, foul odor,” Dr. Duane says. Each woman will have her own baseline pattern for color and amount of mucus. Odor, however, is always a red flag. “If you have any doubt, you should see a doctor,” she advises.

Though you might want to do your research first: A FACTS study found that only 3 to 6 percent of physicians have accurate knowledge about how fertility awareness methods work and the positive impact they have on a woman’s health. If you’re interested in learning more about your cervical secretions, find a trained educator or validated training program near you. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo Credit: Belathee