Have you ever felt something wet in your underwear and rushed to the bathroom thinking it was your period only to find a clear or white fluid has appeared? If you have a uterus, you have likely experienced a little something called cervical mucus (a.k.a. benign discharge). This gel-like fluid may seem unimportant albeit annoying but it provides more information than you may think!
What is vaginal discharge?
Dr. Yen, CEO and co-founder of Pandia Health, defines vaginal discharge as anything that comes out of your vagina in a liquid form. Essentially, it is fluid and cells from the vagina that can be white and sticky or clear and watery; sometimes there is an odor. It can be no big deal (benign) or a sign of infection. Infected discharge would be itchy, green, yellow, chunky white, and/or have a bad odor.
What is cervical mucus?
Most benign discharge is cervical mucus, which is a fluid that comes from the cervix, or neck of the uterus. More specifically, it is produced by the cervical canal as a result of rising estrogen, the female sex hormone.
What is cervical mucus made of?
Although it may look and/or feel gross, cervical mucus is totally natural. It is made up of mucus molecules, water, proteins, and other biochemical compounds (i.e. sodium and potassium).
Why is cervical mucus so important?
The quality of your cervical mucus is a strong indicator of fertility, or your ability to get pregnant. Essentially, the way cervical mucus looks and feels can help you determine when you are ovulating, or when an egg is being released.
If you are trying to prevent pregnancy, paying more attention to what is in your underwear and on your toilet paper could be quite useful; the fluid released can serve as a sign that you might want to avoid sex or make sure you are covered via contraception that day.
How do I check my cervical mucus?
To check your cervical mucus and where you are in your ovulation cycle, you must first take a look. If you feel comfortable getting up close and personal with your vagina, do the following:
- Wash your hands with soap and water.
- Gently insert 1 finger up to the first knuckle in your vagina (make sure your nail is not sharp). If you prefer to use an external method, simply check your toilet paper when you wipe vagina after going pee.
- Remove your finger and check the texture (i.e. thin, stretchy, sticky) and color. Roll the mucus between your thumb and index finger. Then press the fingers together and see if you can stretch the mucus.
What should my cervical mucus look like?
The four main stages are as follows:
- Dry phase = This phase represents the non-fertile portions of a person’s cycle. If you notice that your vagina is relatively dry or slightly damp (the vagina secretes its own fluids separate from cervical mucus) you are likely in the dry phase.
- Sticky phase = During this phase, you are still non-fertile. While everyone’s body reacts differently, the sticky phase typically entails rubbery, cloudy/white cervical mucus.
- Creamy phase = This phase indicates that you are semi-fertile. Your cervical mucus thickens and appears milky or lotiony.
- Clear phase = Once you are in this phase, you can expect to ovulate soon. Cervical mucus that is clear and stretchy (egg-white consistency) allows sperm to survive the environment of the vagina, and in turn, could lead to pregnancy.
When is the best time to have sex?
While you can have sex anytime you and your partner would like, your cervical mucus can play a crucial role in terms of planning around times of fertility. If you want to get pregnant, do it when the mucus is slippery, as this indicates ovulation.
You are more likely to get pregnant both when you have slippery mucus and up to three days before (because the sperm can live up to five days inside a person with a uterus). Once your cervical mucus transitions back to the sticky type, unprotected sex has less of a chance of leading to unplanned pregnancy.
Is all discharge healthy?
If your discharge is clear or white and doesn’t bother you (a.k.a. cervical mucus), there is nothing to worry about. On the other hand, discharge with one or more of the following qualities may be a sign of infection:
- A strong smell (like fish or eggs)
- Bright yellow, green, or gray in color
- Itching, swelling, burning, or irritation
Consult a medical professional if you notice the following symptoms in addition to abnormal discharge:
- A missed period (that is not done intentionally with birth control)
- Rashes or sores
- Burning during sex or urination
Funky discharge accompanied by unpleasant symptoms may be indicative of an underlying issue. Certain colors, smells, and bodily reactions are associated with various health conditions.
- White, thick, and strong-smelling = Yeast infection (itching and irritation of the vagina due to an imbalance of bacteria)
- Yellow/green, clumpy, and strong smelling = STI (infection passed via unprotected sex with a partner)
- Gray and strong-smelling = Bacterial vaginosis (discomfort of the vagina due to buildup of certain bacteria)
- Pink with no smell = Implantation bleeding (bleeding that occurs before an expected period that could be a sign of pregnancy) or spotting (bleeding between periods)
- Red with no smell = Cervical polyp (growth on the cervical canal), endometrial cancer (cell growth on the endometrium), or cervical cancer (cell growth on the cervix)
- Brown with no smell: Old blood, like breakthrough bleeding
How can I ensure a healthy vagina?
Unfortunately, those with uteri cannot prevent all bad health conditions from occurring. However, one can decrease the likelihood of developing frequent infections by maintaining a hygienic vagina.
The vagina self-cleans, so you do not need to do much in order to keep things healthy down there. Avoid soaps, wipes, bubble baths, and other scented products and opt for plain, non-perfumed brands or even just warm water when cleaning.
How can birth control affect discharge?
If you notice a change in your discharge after starting hormonal birth control, don’t panic; this is a normal reaction to the new hormones introduced to your body. Some women even welcome this extra lubrication if they previously experienced vaginal dryness.
Should I be embarrassed by my discharge?
Absolutely not! Discharge is a natural function of the body that cannot be controlled. If anything, it can be used as a source of connection amongst individuals with a uterus. If anything, individuals with a uterus can connect and bond over their discharge. Rather than feeling ashamed, why not let it empower you to embrace your sexual health?
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Disclaimer: This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. Please consult YOUR doctor/provider before changing, stopping, or starting any medications.