Updated on April 10, 2019
Vaginal discharge, cervical fluid, and arousal fluid: are they all the same thing? Not quite. Here, we explain how they vary, how to identify each one, and what you should do if your vaginal fluid starts to look, smell, or feel abnormal.
Top things to know
Discharge is an umbrella term for fluid that comes out of the vagina
Cervical fluid is an aspect of discharge—it changes throughout the cycle to prevent or facilitate sperm from moving past the cervix
Arousal fluid is created within the vagina as part of the human sexual response cycle
You may notice sometimes your vagina feels really wet out of nowhere, so much so that you go to the bathroom just to make sure the moisture you feel isn’t your period or urine. And if you’re aroused you also may notice a surge in vaginal wetness. What’s going on when this happens, and what’s the difference between these fluids?
Cervical fluid = part of discharge
If you’re not on hormonal birth control, the quality and quantity of your cervical fluid change throughout your menstrual cycle. These changes originate in the cervix—the passageway between your lower and upper reproductive tract—and occur in response to the hormonal fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone that prepare your body for ovulation, menstruation, and/or pregnancy.
“Vaginal discharge” is the medical term used to describe the fluid that comes out of the vagina. Discharge is a generalized term, and is made up of cells from the cervix and vagina, bacteria, mucus, and water. People who are menopausal typically have less discharge as a result of lower levels of estrogen.
According to UpToDate, it’s normal to have about one-half to one teaspoon (2 to 5 mL) daily of white or clear, mostly odorless, mucus-like discharge.
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You may feel wetter and have a higher sex drive near ovulation, due to an increase in estrogen. Fertile cervical fluid around ovulation provides additional lubrication. The consistency (slippery, sticky or pasty, and stretchy), as well as sensation (wet or dry) of cervical fluid, will vary throughout your cycle and can indicate cycle phases. Learn more about characteristics and changes in discharge here.
What is arousal fluid?
“Damn, you’re so wet!” “First of all, that’s discharge.”
“Getting wet” during sexual activity is a normal physiological reaction to prepare for sex. However, sexual arousal is both a physiological and psychological response.
Female physical sexual arousal begins with the excitement phase. An increase in genital blood flow leads to vascular engorgement (swelling of the blood vessels). This increase in blood flow and pressure causes fluid (transudate) to be pushed onto the surface of the vaginal walls (1,2). Once you’re fully physically sexually aroused it’s normal to feel vaginal sensations, swelling, and sufficient wetness. Arousal fluid is vaginal lubrication created to enable painless penetration and movement (2).
Sidenote: “Sex flush” is the result of vasocongestion of the skin.
Some things that can make it easier or more difficult to produce arousal fluid:
Fluctuating levels of estrogen throughout the menstrual cycle
Foreplay (or a lack of it)
Your mental state
Certain medications, such as hormonal birth control
Your body produces less estrogen at the beginning and end of the menstrual cycle, so your vagina can feel dryer at these times. It can be frustrating if your body doesn’t represent the feelings of arousal in your mind, and partners can sometimes mistake cervical fluid as an indicator of “being wet” (sufficiently aroused).
Communication is key during sexual activity with a partner. If you feel turned on, but you’re struggling with producing arousal fluid (natural lubrication), wait a little bit, and/or express what you need to get your loins going.
Also, sometimes you just need a bit of lube for vaginal sex, which is completely normal and useful. One study found lubricant use was associated with higher ratings of sexual pleasure. The consensus of women in the study agreed that lube made sex feel better and increased wetness made orgasming easier (3).
If you don’t feel sexual desire and you’re not producing arousal fluid, it could be that you’re not into the acts you’re doing with your partner, or you have a low libido. Menopause, breastfeeding, medication/drugs, and emotional health can also influence the body’s sexual response cycle.
Is vaginal discharge part of “squirting”?
Female ejaculate is still an unclear topic, but research claims a small amount of milky fluid that can be produced at orgasm might be from secretory glands located near the female urethra, known as the Skene’s glands (sometimes known as the female prostate) (4). “Squirting” is considered a type of “female ejaculation” (commonly hyped up and exaggerated by porn) that is suspected to be a form of dilute urine expelled from the bladder during orgasm (4,5).
Some people who have forms of urinary incontinence may experience leakage of urine during vaginal penetration or orgasm (4). This is different than squirting, and for these individuals seeing a healthcare provider to discuss medications or pelvic floor physical therapy may be beneficial.
There’s no need to feel ashamed about squirting. It’s just part of a broad spectrum of sexual responses and experiences, which keeps things unique and exciting.
How to identify abnormal discharge
Color: Grayish, greenish, yellowish, brownish
Volume: Significant amount, often with other symptoms like itching
Consistency: Fluid becomes way thinner, or thicker and more textured
Smell: Unpleasant, fishy, metallic
Excluding atypical discharge, it’s normal to notice different types of vaginal fluid throughout your cycle, as well as during and after sexual activity.
Arousal fluid is distinct from cervical fluid, and occurs as a result of the excitement phase in the sexual response cycle. Checking your cervical fluid after sexual activity may be misleading, as it can be confused with semen or arousal fluid.
Understand the changes in discharge throughout your cycle, and track your sexual activity with Clue.
Article was originally published on October 24, 2017.