Discharge, aka cervical fluid or cervical mucus, is a totally normal and healthy part of your menstrual cycle. Today’s episode will cover the different types you may experience, and I’ll answer some common questions about what’s normal and what’s not. Grab some toilet paper and get curious!
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The transcript for this blog post has been edited for length and clarity.
Discharge is totally normal
As with many things related to our lunar bodies, we’re left to our own devices to figure out what the heck is going on. We wonder about totally normal, but perhaps new-to-us, occurrences and give ourselves anxiety, we google embarrassing things in incognito mode, we ask questions on Reddit under throwaway user names.
The quest for knowledge about our bodily functions is cloaked in shame and embarrassment. So much so that many of us won’t even talk to our friends about it!
I’m talking about cervical fluid. Cervical mucus. Discharge. Whatever you want to call it, the terms are interchangeable.
The stuff that’s on your underwear and on your toilet paper.
What is it? Is it normal? Why are there so many different kinds? Is one better than the other? Am I dying? Am I sick? Do my friends get this? Why do I feel so embarrassed to talk about it?
As a reminder, this information is for educational purposes only, it is NOT medical advice and it is your responsibility to speak to a qualified health care provider about your unique needs. The final decision when considering any diet or lifestyle changes, whether it’s discussed on the internet, in a podcast, or prescribed by your doctor, is always your own.
What is the purpose of cervical fluid?
I was inspired to write this article by a Reddit thread that my friend told me about. She said it was full of people praising each other for having clean underwear, which made other people feel bad about having discharge. It was just so very clear that there is such a misunderstanding about how our bodies function, what’s normal and what’s not, and that the lack of knowledge perpetuates stigma.
Discharge is completely normal. It’s a sign of fertility!
So let’s start by talking about what it is exactly.
Your body produces different types, or varying consistencies, of cervical fluid throughout your cycle as estrogen rises. In your follicular phase, as you move towards ovulation, estrogen stimulates your cervical crypts to produce that mucus. You have multiple types of crypts that produce multiple types of fluid.
The fluid has two jobs, and both involve sperm.
Leading up to ovulation, that fluid provides a place for sperm to survive so that it may eventually meet the egg. When you ovulate and release an egg, it goes to the fallopian tube to potentially meet the sperm, but the egg only survives there for up to 24 hours. Sperm can survive in fertile cervical fluid for up to five days while it waits around for the egg, which means you have a six-day fertile window, meaning the window in which you can get pregnant.
Why do we have it?
Why would we need a safe haven of sorts for sperm? What does the sperm need to be protected from?
The vagina is naturally acidic, and so on days when that fluid isn’t present, there is no medium for the sperm to live, so the vagina’s natural acidity sort of kills sperm on the spot, or within a couple hours. Cervical fluid is a survival mechanism, it’s ensuring the continuation of humankind.
As you get closer to ovulation and fluid begins to appear, you should consider any fluid present as a sign that you are fertile and adjust your sexual behavior accordingly (meaning abstain, withdraw, use protection, or whatever you deem appropriate) if you are trying to avoid pregnancy, and to have intercourse if you are trying to conceive.
The fluid is not just a medium for sperm to survive in, it also helps filter out poor-quality sperm so that only the strong survive as well.
After ovulation, progesterone takes over as the dominant hormone and this naturally suppresses that free-flowing mucus production, and instead, it creates more of a thick, gelatinous type of mucus that forms what is essentially a plug in the cervical canal that is impenetrable by sperm.
Fertile mucus is what you’ll see in your underwear. You will not see infertile mucus because it’s plugging up your cervix.
Discharge is essentially a gatekeeper, and depending on your goals, understanding your patterns better can help you have more control over your family planning, whether you’re planning to have a family or planning not to.
How does cervical mucus change throughout the menstrual cycle?
You may have thought that having discharge meant something was wrong with you, but again, it’s perfectly normal for the amount, the consistency, and the color to change.
Cervical mucus in the menstrual phase
In the menstrual phase, we don’t typically monitor for fluid because it’s hard to really pick out what’s what if there is fluid that happens to be present. It can be hard to distinguish between regular cervical mucus and the mucus that’s coming from your menstrual flow.
You are typically not fertile in this phase, though that is not an absolute truth for everyone, particularly if you have a very short cycle — which just adds to the many reasons to track your cycle.
Cervical mucus in the early follicular phase
In the follicular phase, at the beginning, after your period, these days will typically be dry days where there’s no mucus, or infertile mucus, present. The mucus plug forms that secures itself in your cervix and is impenetrable to sperm, so any sperm cells present in the vagina will die within a couple hours.
Your vagina will have its natural moisture, which is always present because it’s a mucus membrane, but if you touch it, it’ll dry quickly on your finger and won’t leave any real residue or stickiness behind. There’s nothing appearing in your underwear on dry days either.
It’s similar to touching the inside of your cheek, you’ll feel moisture, but there’s no substance that sticks around on your finger. This is considered “dry”, and it’s important to know what it feels like because it serves as your baseline for understanding the rest of your fluid pattern.
You can also tell by your vaginal sensation — without touching anything, just think about how your vagina feels at the moment, you know sometimes it feels like nothing, sometimes it feels a bit gloopy, we’ll get to that. But feeling like nothing is the dry phase with no cervical mucus present.
Cervical mucus in the late follicular phase
Then later in the follicular phase, as the egg starts to mature, you will typically see a yellowish, white, or cloudy type of mucus in your underwear or on the toilet paper. It will feel sticky or tacky like rubber cement on your fingers when you press them together, and it can be gummy or crumbly like rubber cement too in texture.
If it’s had a chance to dry out, it might be a bit crusty on the fabric of your underwear. If you do see it on your underwear, it’ll usually look a bit rectangular or it forms lines on top of the fabric instead of it soaking through.
Each stage of the mucus means you’re becoming more and more fertile. Dry is the least fertile because there’s no mucus around, and then the white or cloudy mucus indicates some fertility, meaning sperm can survive in it longer.
The next level is whiter and a little bit thicker, like cream or lotion. It has a creamy consistency, not clumpy but smooth. This is still pre-ovulation in the later days of the follicular phase.
As you become more fertile, the water content in your mucus increases. For vaginal sensation, you may not feel anything, or you may feel some slight moisture. In your underwear, this type of mucus still sits on top of the fabric, still can be a little crusty if it dries out.
Cervical mucus near ovulation
The most fertile stage is when it feels very wet and slippery because estrogen is hitting its peak and that increases the water content of the mucus, making it easier for the sperm to make its way through the vaginal canal. This is a sign that the cervix is open and the sperm has free passage up into the uterus. It’s usually clear, slippery, and stretchy like an egg white, though it can be a little cloudy too.
You’ll notice when you wipe with toilet paper that it’s super slick and very lubricated. You might have to wipe a few times to clear it out. It will sit on top of the toilet paper, and you can either press the toilet paper together, or press the mucus between your fingers, and when you pull apart it will stretch at least an inch — that’s how you know you’ve got that fertile mucus. It can sit on top of your underwear rather than soaking in.
Then the most fertile stage is the watery stage, which may look like nothing because it’s not as visible as the other stages. The vaginal sensation, however, is definitely wet. It might cause that same sensation that you have during your period when you sneeze, and when you check you see there’s a round wet patch in your underwear.
This one can be harder to notice because the consistency is so thin and watery, but it will be lubricative to the touch, and it will stick around on your finger, as opposed to the dry days where that moisture just evaporates.
As you can tell, getting to know your cervical fluid is quite a personal adventure, but you learn so much!
Cervical mucus after ovulation
After you ovulate, you go back to dry days or sticky days as you move into the luteal phase of your cycle. The sudden drying is your indicator that progesterone has taken over and that ovulation occurred — that’s in a normal cycle.
If you’re dealing with PCOS, then your body may make multiple attempts to ovulate and you may notice several periods of cervical mucus fluctuations happening. I have had clients tell me that they ovulate multiple times in one cycle — this is a myth, you can only ovulate twice in the case of twins, and in that case it would be within the same 24 hour period. It’s typically the PCOS-related pattern of cervical fluid production that they’re referring to, where they fluctuate through fertile mucus, then dry days, then fertile mucus, and more dry days.
The presence alone of this discharge does not mean that ovulation has occurred, it is only telling you that your estrogen is rising and your body is preparing to ovulate.
To know that ovulation has occurred for sure, you can confirm it with a basal body temperature reading, which you do first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Postovulatory temperatures tend to be 97.8 degrees and above consistently. If you’re tracking your temperature throughout your cycle, you will see a clear shift in temperature after ovulation.
Common questions about cervical fluid
Now that you know what a typical discharge cycle looks like, let’s talk about some common questions.
How do I know what’s NOT normal?
You’ll want to pay attention to the texture, consistency, and color of the mucus — and if you have other symptoms too. This is all important information to bring to your doctor if you need to figure out if there’s an infection or other issue. I just went through what those three characteristics would be at each stage, so first see if that doesn’t match up. The color can be clear, whitish, or pale yellowish and that’s normal.
If it’s sticky, white, or pale yellow and this is abnormal for you, that may actually be an early sign of pregnancy. Do not freak out. Again this is why it’s so important to track so you can have multiple signs and signals to work with to put some puzzle pieces together. Not all pregnant women will experience this, but some do.
If it’s thick, white, and has the texture of cottage cheese, that’s a telltale sign of a yeast infection. You may also have itching, swelling, and pain down there.
If the mucus is gray, foul-smelling (like fishy) and there’s itching and swelling, that’s a sign of bacterial vaginosis.
Green or yellow mucus could be a symptom of an STD like trichomoniasis or gonorrhea.
Obviously, these things are out of the ordinary and something you should see your doctor for. If you’ve had yeast infections in the past and can identify that that’s what it is, you can likely treat it at home, but if you’re not sure, or if you’re dealing with any of these other abnormal cervical fluid patterns, make an appointment with your gyno and don’t be afraid to explain in detail what you’re experiencing.
The abnormal mucus usually comes with other symptoms, so keep that in mind before freaking out, and start tracking so that you’re able to see what’s normal for you and what’s not.
If you have brown or bloody dischaarge — this could just be spotting, which is nothing to be worried about. It can happen a couple of days before your period, a couple of days after your period, or you may notice light bleeding around ovulation. This could also be implantation bleeding, when the fertilized egg implants into the uterine lining. If that’s a possibility, you’ll want to take a pregnancy test if you notice high basal body temperatures continuing after 18 days.
If this brown discharge is abnormal for you, and you’re experiencing pain or other symptoms, you may or may not want to give your doctor a call. It may just be a one-time experience and they’ll just tell you to call them back if it happens again — and that may be true, we don’t want to worry about every change, because not every cycle is going to be totally perfect, but I also want to emphasize that you know your body best, and if you feel that something is wrong, ask to be seen.
Spotting can also be a sign of low progesterone, because it is old blood that wasn’t fully expelled in the last cycle. The brown color is from oxidation.
In terms of smell, healthy cervical fluid will have none, or it will have a slight scent, which is the scent of you, which can be like nothing, earthy or a slight tang. It’s normal for vaginas to smell like vaginas, don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Just like the gut has a microbiome, filled with bacteria, so does your skin, and so does your vagina. When everything is in balance, you will have your usual scent. What would be cause for concern here is if the smell is particularly strong, fishy, or foul, which could be a sign of an infection or other issue.
What if I can’t tell what kind of discharge I have?
I usually get this question when the client just doesn’t have a ton of mucus in general. It doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, it just means that’s your pattern.
You can try some kegel exercises before you use the bathroom to try and coax out some of the fluid if you want to, and before you pee, swipe a clean finger around the vaginal opening. This might help you see it a little bit better so you can inspect it, press your fingers together, see what kind of texture it has, if any.
You should not have to insert your finger or do any digging to get it. You can also (before you pee) swipe clean toilet paper across the area and inspect it from there if you don’t want to use your finger.
Just as we’re all different in terms of the types of fluid we experience, we’re also all different in the amount that we experience too. A typical amount of discharge can be a quarter to one teaspoon per day, and the volume increases as you approach ovulation. You may notice more or less for you.
If you’re younger, you produce more and for a longer period of time — for example in your 20s you might have a week of fertile cervical mucus, whereas in your 30s it might just be 3 or 4 days. Again, tracking will let you know what’s true for you.
Something to be aware of is that arousal fluid can make it harder to figure out which type of cervical mucus you have, because it’s lubricative like fertile mucus can be. So if you can, try to figure that out before engaging in any sexual activity. Also, semen can make it harder to figure this out too, so consider this if the following morning you’re unsure about what you’re looking at.
If you are on hormonal birth control, you may not experience these same types of fluctuations. You may experience heavier discharge, or you may not experience it at all. For example, the pill, the implant, and the Mirena IUD work by thickening cervical mucus, like the plug I mentioned earlier, so in that case, you’re probably going to experience mostly dry days.
If I have discharge every day, does that mean something’s wrong with me?
Not necessarily. Again, we’re looking at patterns. Is this a new occurrence, or is this your typical fluid cycle?
You may notice, kind of like how our energy rises and falls in sort of a bell curve in the cycle, your stages of discharge may rise and fall too. It’s a continuum, so after ovulation, you might go back down those stages (from watery, back to egg white, back to creamy, back to sticky).
Also, if you have a copper IUD, it does cause some level of inflammation because it is a foreign object in a sensitive area, so you may have an increase in fluid throughout your cycle.
However, if you’re noticing wet fluid for days and weeks on end, this can be an indication of PCOS or of estrogen dominance. It may also be stress! Stress can delay ovulation, and you can end up with a pattern similar to PCOS where you’re attempting to ovulate but it’s just not happening, so consider this if you’re in the middle of something particularly stressful too.
How can I prevent problems with cervical fluid?
Remember I mentioned the microbiome. Just like we want to keep a good balance in the gut, we want to do the same by caring for the vagina. So number one, do not use a douche or any product that tells you it’s going to rid you of odor. You don’t want fragrances in there and you don’t want harsh chemicals. This can disrupt the microbiome even further and exacerbate infection if there is one.
What you eat can support your microbiome and balance in this area as well. You want the typical microbiome-friendly foods that are rich in probiotics, so fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and the like. Also enjoy foods that support your hormone health, because the microbiome can also be disrupted by low estrogen (because estrogen actually helps preserve the bacterial balance in the vagina).
Make sure you’re getting enough fiber and make sure you’re eating balanced meals to support blood sugar regulation. Also if you are dealing with a yeast infection, you may want to avoid sugar because it can essentially feed the yeast and make it worse.
That’s what’s in your underwear!
If this topic fascinated you or you want to learn more about your fertility, there’s plenty more where that came from. I teach about this in my Cycle Magic course, and I also go more in-depth on the topic in my virtual workshop called Fertility for Everyone. We talk about:
- why fertility is important whether you want kids or not,
- birth control’s impact on fertility, whether you are currently on birth control or are transitioning off
- what healthy ovulation looks like, its benefits beyond fertility, and factors that can impact fertility
- nutrition recommendations for healthy ovulation and a happier period
This is available on-demand on my website so you can download it and watch at your convenience.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me via email or on Instagram and I’ll share my answer on a future episode.