Raise your hand if you learned about vaginal discharge growing up. No? What about cervical mucus and your cycle? No one? We thought not. In your parents’ and teachers’ defense, they likely didn’t know much about them. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get educated now. And that’s what we’re all about here at Hormona. So, let’s go!
What is cervical mucus and how is it different from vaginal discharge?
Cervical mucus is a medical term that describes fluid produced by your cervix, while vaginal discharge is what you can see on your underwear. The difference is in composition, as vaginal fluid, cells, any dead sperm, and bacteria, join your cervical mucus on their way out of your vagina. That said, water makes up around 91-97% of your vaginal discharge. It’s your body’s natural way of protecting your reproductive system, allowing sperm to reach the egg when it’s ready, as well as cleaning your vagina.
So, we’ll use cervical mucus when we talk about what is going on in your cervix and vaginal discharge in relation to what you can see, smell and touch. Typical vaginal discharge generally ranges from clear to pale yellow and has a smooth consistency. And its odor is usually earthy and sweet at the same time. Or, the odor may be so faint that you don’t notice it at all.
So, why do the consistency, smell, and color change all the time? Shouldn’t it stay the same?
Our bodies are wonderfully complex. And both vaginal discharge and cervical mucus are more than just a way for our bodies to eliminate waste. In fact, what your discharge looks like is an indication of what’s going on with your hormones. That’s why tracking your cervical mucus through your discharge is an excellent way to know what’s going on with your cycle.
The cervical fluids are really flowing in the Follicular phase. That’s because there’s a lot going on when it comes to hormone fluctuations. So, let’s get started.
We all expect to see blood during a period. From spotting to those heavy flow days, we expect to see red. But what if you see brown?
Don’t freak out! Old blood is usually brown. Brown spotting just before the period, at the end of the period, or even a few days after your period ends may not be cause for concern. In many cases, it’s just taking a little longer for that blood to exit your body.
Vaginal discharge during the Follicular phase
Estrogen levels begin to rise during the Follicular phase after your period. And you may notice that you have quite a bit of discharge. Many women report their discharge being thick, creamy, white, cloudy, or some combination of those.
A prevailing theory for why cervical mucus is thicker in consistency at this point is that you’re technically just outside of your fertility window. If an egg isn’t quite ready to be fertilized, your body creates a thicker mucus to help stop sperm.
Don’t take that as a green light to be a little risky! Sperm can live inside your body for up to 5 days. So you should still use some form of protection.
Ovulation is normally about halfway through your cycle. But, if you want to get a little more specific about when that fertility window is, check your discharge.
Remember that egg that wasn’t quite ready yet? Well, it is now – or it’s about to be! A few days before and during Ovulation, you may notice that your discharge, and therefore mucus, gets thinner and looser in texture. It may be wet, slippery, and stretchier, sort of like egg whites. You may also notice a change in color from white or off-white to clear. It sort of sounds like lube, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s the point. This is your body giving you the green light if you’re trying to become pregnant. Or, the red light, if you’re not. The change in texture creates an ideal environment for sperm to do their job and a more enjoyable experience for you if you’re trying to get pregnant, if you know what we mean…
Assuming you aren’t pregnant, your Estrogen levels will drop, and Progesterone levels will rise during the Luteal phase. This will likely cause yet another change in your vaginal discharge. This time, it’s likely to be quite sticky and tacky. Or, you may be completely dry.
Other things that can affect your vaginal discharge and cervical mucus
Everybody is different. So, if your discharge is a few days off of what we’ve described, don’t panic. Unless you are experiencing other symptoms, there’s usually nothing to worry about. However, there are some other things that could affect your vaginal discharge and cervical mucus.
Your discharge is one of the easiest ways to tell if something is going on down there that shouldn’t be. Yes, one of the purposes of your discharge is to get rid of harmful bacteria, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never get an infection.
According to a study from 2017, three of the most common vaginal infections include:
- Bacterial Vaginosis, AKA BV
- Trichomoniasis, an STI
- Yeast infections
And it’s also possible to have all of them at the same time!
Thing is, it’s not always easy to distinguish between them by just looking at discharge. For instance, yeast infections are often characterized by chunky, cottage cheese-like discharge and vaginal itching. But women with BV often have thin, white, or gray discharge accompanied by vaginal itching and burning when urinating. And you would likely notice a foul, fishy smell to the discharge with both.
When it comes to Trichomoniasis, you’ll be likely to see frothy white or yellow discharge.
If this sounds like you, please talk to your healthcare provider. They can diagnose and treat the problem. And after a few days, you should feel much better.
Lubricant, arousal fluid, semen, saliva… It’s a lot. And it’s bound to affect your discharge. You may notice your discharge is extra slippery and wet for a little while after sex. It’s totally normal for excess fluids to leak out of the vagina, so don’t freak out.
Pregnancy or breastfeeding
Pregnancy and the weeks immediately after birth are a rollercoaster for hormones, especially in the early days. And it’s definitely going to affect your discharge. Regardless of how you delivered your baby, you’ll likely bleed for several days and, possibly, weeks after giving birth. As your hormones regulate and eventually return to baseline, you’ll also experience a variety of textures and colors in your vaginal discharge.
But, the general rules still apply. Call your doctor if you’re uncomfortable, or your discharge is foul-smelling, chunky, or a color you wouldn’t normally expect to see if you were menstruating as usual.
Hormonal Birth Control
Any kind of Hormonal Birth Control can affect your cervical mucus, and therefore, your vaginal discharge. In fact, one of the ways they work is by thickening cervical mucus to block sperm! So, while you may notice a rhythm to your discharge and cervical mucus, if it doesn’t match the pattern we described, there’s usually no reason to worry.
You might be surprised to know that some of your habits and things you were explicitly taught could be responsible for causing infections and other vaginal sensitivity issues.
Is your favorite underwear made of super-soft synthetic material? Do you like wearing tight clothing? Well, those things can contribute to BV, yeast infections, and vaginal itching.
Microorganisms love to breed in warm, moist, and dark environments. You can’t do too much about it being warm and dark down there, but you can wear loose clothing more often. You can also make sure that at least the crotch part of your underwear is made of a breathable material, like cotton. Just doing that will help decrease your risk of infection.
Fragrances are known to lead to fragrance sensitivities over time on normal skin. So, imagine what can happen if your vulva and vagina are routinely exposed to scented soaps, lotions, perfumes, etc., on a regular basis. Yikes!
Instead, use your hand, warm water, and mild, fragrance-free soap, if needed, to cleanse your vulva. Notice how we said “vulva” and not “vagina.” That’s because soap and water do not belong in your vagina. It cleans itself through your vaginal discharge, remember? So, no douching!
However, feel free to use a bidet or peri-bottle to help rinse the area after urination or when you need to freshen up.
When to see your doctor
You may still experience the odd infection or uncomfortable symptoms even after your best efforts. In this case, you should see your doctor.
How to prepare
Before you show up, you’ll want to get a good look at what’s going on down there. A handheld mirror can be useful to help you with this. If you’re feeling bashful about it, lock the bathroom door or wait for a time when you can be assured the privacy and time you need to do this.
Take a mental note of what you can see. Where is the fluid coming from? What is the color, texture, and smell of the discharge? Does it match what you’ve found in your underwear?
It can also be helpful to think back to when you first started experiencing symptoms. A wonderfully detailed app – called Hormona – can help you keep track of all of your symptoms so that this one can be a no-brainer.
All of this will help you be prepared for your appointment.
What to expect
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. They may also want to do a pelvic exam and a swab to check for infection. Many offices will offer to bring another healthcare provider into the room during this to help you feel more at ease. If this is not offered to you and having someone else in the room would help you feel more comfortable, ask! Alternatively, you can bring someone you trust with you to your appointment.
Your doctor will review test results with you after a few days and may recommend treatment and other preventative measures.
Cervical mucus and your cycle
Your cervical mucus and vaginal discharge are intimately linked to your hormones, infections notwithstanding. And because of that relationship, they’ll change over the course of your life, depending on your particular stage. Tracking, using the Hormona app can help you get to know how that relationship affects your discharge, as well as helping you recognize when something might not be right.
But remember gang, if anything looks or smells off with your discharge, please see your doctor at your earliest convenience. You won’t regret it.
Medically reviewed by: Dr. Anna Targonskaya, MD, OBGYN, Medical Advisor at Hormona
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