SKIP AHEAD. . .
What is cervical mucus?
“Discharge” is a commonly used umbrella term for any fluid that comes out of the vagina, but these fluids aren’t all the same! Cervical mucus is one such kind of discharge, produced by the glands in and around the cervix (the lower, narrow part of your uterus which connects it to your vagina). It makes its way into your underwear by traveling through the vaginal canal and exiting through the vagina (1).
And before you get annoyed by the mucus in your panties, know that cervical mucus is good for your vag—cervical mucus helps to maintain an acidic pH in the vagina and prevents other potentially harmful pathogens from thriving. (Thank you, mucus!)
It’s fine to use sanitary towels or panty liners on days when you produce more mucus (e.g. around ovulation or early pregnancy) but don’t use tampons as these can introduce new and unnecessary germs into your vagina. And protip: don’t use vaginal wipes or douches as these will cause pH imbalance and offset the positive effects of your mucus (2).
How much mucus is normal?
The quality, volume, and consistency of your cervical mucus change throughout your menstrual cycle. It’s normal to have about one-half to one teaspoon of white or clear cervical mucus every day (2-5ml), however, this will be different between individuals. What’s cool about cervical mucus is that tracking these changes throughout your cycle can give you clues about what hormonal events and changes are happening in your body (3).
Sorry, cervical mucus can do *what* now?!
Yep—cervical mucus can actually let you know about what’s going on inside of your bod! Changes to cervical mucus are generally cyclical, linked to your changing hormone levels throughout your menstrual cycle. As such, the length and intensity of the changes to your mucus may be different, just like your cycle is. Tracking your cervical mucus can give you a good indication of changes and events in your menstrual cycle, including when to expect your most fertile days.
Understanding your own patterns in cervical mucus can help you to understand when ovulation has occurred. This is important for anyone trying to understand when to try to conceive, anyone wanting to understand when they need to be extra careful about protection, and especially for anyone using the “fertility awareness method” of birth control: during days when you are not ovulating, you may choose to have unprotected vaginal sex (4). More on how to de-code your cervical mucus below.
Also note that if you’re on hormonal birth control, it will affect your cervical mucus: progesterone, for example, will thicken cervical mucus (thereby making it more difficult for the sperm to swim through and lessening the chances of it reaching the egg) (5). Another important thing to know about changes in cervical mucus is that in addition to your monthly cycle, your cervical mucus can be affected by certain conditions and activities, such as having sex or having used the morning after pill recently.
Even if you’re using another kind of birth control or are not looking to get pregnant, it can be worth checking and monitoring your cervical mucus. If your mucus changes unexpectedly—it smells unpleasant, has an unusual texture like cottage cheese, or is accompanied by other pain, itching, or change in color—you may want to see a doctor or midwife. Changes like these could be a sign of an infection or that something isn’t right (6).
And how can you check your cervical mucus?
Glad you asked! There are three ways to check your cervical mucus, and you can follow whichever method which feels most comfortable to you:
- Before going to the toilet, wipe the opening of your vagina with white toilet paper or tissue. Note the color and consistency of the mucus on the tissue.
- Monitor the color and texture of the discharge on your underwear
- Wash your hands, and put two fingers into your vagina. Check the color and consistency of the mucus on your fingers
The best way to monitor the consistency of your mucus is to rub it between your thumb and index finger. You can start tracking and monitoring your cervical mucus the day after your period stops completely. You can find several template charts for monitoring your mucus, but the general rule is to note whether you’re on your period, whether your vagina feels wet or dry, and whether the mucus feels slippery, cloudy, or sticky (9).
Cervical mucus changes in pregnancy?
During pregnancy, you may notice that you produce more cervical mucus that will initially likely appear thin, milky, white, milky, and mild-smelling— some pregnancy guides refer to this as “leukorrhea”, which is just another name for cervical mucus. (10). This is to be expected, as your pregnancy hormones, including estrogen, increase and blood flow to the vaginal area is increased as well. Although you may be eager to observe this when trying to get pregnant, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see noticeable changes to your mucus until week 8 of the pregnancy, although some people notice it as early as 1-2 weeks after conception (10, 8).
Cervical mucus is intended to facilitate or prevent sperm from moving past your cervix, but during pregnancy rising levels of progesterone cause your mucus to become gradually stickier and thicker to prevent sperm from entering your cervix as they’re no longer need. This change in mucus also keeps unhealthy bacteria and viruses out and over the first trimester, and the thicker discharge forms a plug over the entrance to the cervix to prevent infection (8).
Later towards the end of the pregnancy, as the cervix begins to dilate and prepare for childbirth, this mucus plug slowly begins to break down and may come out of the vagina in small bits or large clumps (8).
Although there are some changes in cervical mucus that may indicate pregnancy or the right time for conception, these should not be considered in isolation: early physical signs of pregnancy are very subtle, so they shouldn’t be read as signs of fertility or pregnancy on their own. Even if you experience some of these changes, you should take a pregnancy test to be sure.
Brown or pink tinged cervical discharge (mucus)
In early pregnancy you might notice that your discharge is brown or pink-tinged. This isn’t cervical mucus, rather, it’s possible that this is a sign of implantation bleeding, aka spotting which occurs around the same time that an embryo would be implanting itself into the uterine lining. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that the implantation itself is what causes this bleeding, but the name comes from the timing (8). Also, note that many people who are pregnant do not have implantation bleeding.
That said, brown or pink-tinged mucus doesn’t necessarily indicate that you are pregnant. It’s common to see pink-tinged mucus around ovulation, and this can also be a sign of hormonal changes, uterine fibroids, or ovarian cysts (11).
Cervical mucus and fertility
Cervical mucus is important for your reproductive system not only in facilitating (and sometimes obstructing) sperm’s travel to the egg, but also in ensuring that only the strongest sperm make it to the egg for fertilization #maythebestspermwin (7).
So how can this magical mucus clue you in that you’re about to be fertile? Well, before ovulation you produce more mucus and it’s wetter than at other times, which helps the sperm to swim more easily and survive. Your mucus will change in both consistency and the amount produced, and tracking it regularly will help you to understand when you are ovulating and therefore most fertile/more likely to get pregnant (8).
However, as we previously mentioned, the production and consistency of cervical mucus are affected by factors other than ovulation. Having sex, for example, can make your body produce more or different mucus, which can make it more difficult to monitor this reliably. If you’re monitoring your cervical mucus with the intention of trying to get pregnant, it’s best to avoid vaginal sex for a whole cycle before using this method. Better still, get the guidance of a doctor, healthcare provider, or midwife in how to track your cervical mucus most effectively before you rely solely on it. They may also recommend that you combine this method with tracking your basal body temperature, or BBT, for more reliable results (9).
Trying to get pregnant
While changes to the amount and consistency of your cervical mucus can be a good indicator of ovulation, they’re not wholly reliable or consistent. You should also use other signs and methods if you’re trying to get pregnant, such as an ovulation predictor kit or monitor (10). A fertility monitor helps you to track two key hormones: the luteinizing hormone (LH) and estrogen levels present in urine, and will tell you your fertility level for the day: low, high, or peak (12).
If you are trying to get pregnant, it’s still important to monitor your cervical mucus to spot anything unusual or unpleasant. Unexpected changes to the color, texture or smell of your cervical mucus may indicate an infection. Left untreated, vaginal infections can lead to miscarriage.
Everybody is different, and no two people’s cervical mucus will follow the exact same pattern. If you’re planning to use this method either to try to conceive or prevent pregnancy, it’s worth chatting to your doctor or midwife about it first and considering using this method in combination with another for maximum effect.
Written By: Rachel Besenyei, writer interested in women’s health and female pain. Rachel is based in London, UK, and you can find her at @rachelbesenyei.
Medically Reviewed By: Aisha Wagner, Family Physician with fellowships focusing on contraception and abortion advocacy.
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