What is vaginal discharge and how does it change across the cycle?
Everything you need to know about vaginal and cervical fluid.
Top things to know about discharge and your cycle:
Vaginal discharge does not mean you have an infection
Different phases of the menstrual cycle affect the type and volume of vaginal discharge
Reproductive hormones as well as expected bacteria in the vagina can change vaginal discharge
Increased amounts of stretchy, clear, and wet discharge can be a sign of ovulation
Some people look at their cervical fluid discharge to get clues about ovulation
You may have noticed that sometimes you have more vaginal discharge and sometimes less. At times, your discharge can be clear and stretchy; other times it may be cloudy or clumpy.
You may go days without seeing any discharge and then one morning while wiping you have a big glob that attaches to the toilet paper and stretches a good three inches.
Taking note of your vaginal discharge and tracking your cervical fluid (fluid produced by the cells of the cervix, also called cervical mucus) can help you better understand your menstrual cycle and give clues about ovulation, or maybe, will simply help you decide when to skip the lube during sex.
What exactly is vaginal discharge?
Vaginal discharge is any non-period fluid that leaves your vagina. It is mostly water (1). There are also tiny microorganisms, including bacteria, present (1). This discharge helps the body remove old cells from the vagina and protects vaginal tissues from infection (1). Vaginal discharge changes in the way it looks and feels throughout the cycle (1).
Discharge can include vaginal lubrication, arousal fluid, semen after having sex, and cervical fluid, or possibly discharge from bacterial growth or an infection (2,3).
You may notice more or less vaginal discharge throughout your cycle and during different stages of your life, such as after giving birth or during menopause (1).
What is cervical fluid?
Cervical fluid is produced by the cells of your cervix (2). The cervix is the opening to the uterus from the vagina (2). Cervical fluid can change throughout your cycle from thick, creamy, and sticky to thin, wet, and slippery (4).
When the hormone estrogen increases right before ovulation, cervical fluid thins (5). This makes it easier for sperm to move through the cervix (5). This thinning may make it look like there is an increase in discharge and it may seem stretchier (5). When the hormone progesterone increases, cervical mucus thickens (5). You can track your cervical fluid in Clue to better understand your body.
What is arousal fluid? And what does it mean to “get wet”?
Lubrication fluid is filtered from blood plasma (the liquid part of blood minus the blood cells) (6). Sexual arousal (excitement) causes extra blood to flow to the tissue of the vagina (3). There is more pressure in the swollen tissue and this causes the fluid to be pushed to the surface of the vaginal walls (3). This increase in moisture, or “wetness”, is vaginal lubrication or arousal fluid (3).
Are female ejaculation and squirting the same thing?
No, they’re not. Female ejaculate (FE) is the release of a few milliliters of thick white fluid that is produced by the Skene’s glands, an organ on either side of the urethra (where urine leaves the body) (7). It is released from the urethra (6,7). FE is not urine (6,7). Some people with vulvas report ejaculation happening before or after and with or without orgasm (6).
Squirting is the release or gushing of about 10 ml or more of clear fluid from the urethra, usually during orgasm or high arousal (6). The fluid in squirting is similar to urine and comes from the bladder (6). Both FE and squirting can happen at the same time (6). Not everyone will experience FE and/or squirting, and that’s normal too (6).
Does sex affect vaginal discharge?
Before, during, and after sex, you may notice your vagina feels wetter. This can be due to arousal fluid, lube, or if you had penis-in-vagina sex without a condom, semen. You may notice semen coming out of the vagina right after sex or during the hours following sex. Semen is usually a gray-white, cloudy, jelly-like liquid (8). Spotting after sex could happen because of dryness or irritation, but it could also be caused by your cervix being swollen from an infection (9,10).
Does birth control affect vaginal discharge?
Hormonal birth control can affect vaginal discharge (5). Birth control that contains progestin (a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone) can make cervical fluid thicker, which makes it harder for sperm to get through the cervix (5). You may see thicker or less vaginal discharge because of this (11).
Do pregnancy and breastfeeding affect vaginal discharge?
Changing levels of the hormone estrogen during pregnancy, postpartum (after birth), and breastfeeding can cause vaginal dryness for some people (1). Using a lubricant can help make sex more pleasurable or comfortable if vaginal dryness is bothersome (1). Your healthcare provider can talk to you about more treatments for vaginal dryness such as synthetic estrogen (estradiol) hormone cream (1).
How does the menstrual cycle affect vaginal discharge?
The menstrual cycle and related hormones can affect vaginal discharge (2). These changes may show up differently for you, or you may experience or interpret them in a different way.
1. During your period: bleeding (menstruation)
On day one of the cycle, the first day of your period, levels of both estrogen and progesterone are low (5). The cervix is not producing much fluid at this time, but this won’t be noticed much since there is period bleeding (5).
2. Just after a period: absent, dry
Estrogen is produced by a small sac in the ovary holding an egg, called a follicle (5). Estrogen slowly increases after the period ends (5). There may be less cervical fluid for a couple of days after your period ends until estrogen increases again.
3. Days between your period and ovulation: sticky, white, creamy
Estrogen levels are rising quickly now and the cervix produces more fluid. At first, discharge may look thick and sticky. Then it may become more wet and creamy, like a lotion. Discharge during this time can look whitish and cloudy, or even yellowish (especially if it’s dry on your underwear) (5). In a 28-day menstrual cycle, you may first notice this fluid around day nine or ten (5). This is just an estimate. People have different cycle lengths and ovulation can vary from cycle to cycle, even in people who feel their cycles are predictable (12).
4. A few days before and during ovulation: clear, wet, slippery, and stretchy
There is a lot of cervical fluid during the days right before ovulation (5). Your vagina will likely start to feel much wetter. There is more cervical fluid during this time and this is typically very slippery (5). This is caused by estrogen peaking one to two days before ovulation (5). Discharge may look like raw egg whites that can be stretched for inches between your thumb and finger (5).
5. After ovulation until the start of the next period bleeding: sticky, dry
As soon as ovulation is over, vaginal discharge decreases (8). The hormone progesterone is higher and this decreases the release of fluid from the cervix and discharge may become tacky, dry, or absent (5).
This leads us back to menstruation, and the cycle begins again.
Every body is unique—these changes may show up differently for you, or you may experience or interpret them in a different way.
Do I have a yeast infection?
Vaginal yeast infections happen when too much of a fungus called candida grows in the vagina (13). You may have a yeast infection if you have burning, itching, redness, and notice white, clumpy discharge that seems uncommon for you (13).
Is it ok for discharge to smell?
Vaginal discharge has a subtle smell (14). If your discharge starts to have a very strong odor or “fishy” smell, this could be related to an overgrowth of bacterial cells (14). Pain, itching, or burning around the vulva or vagina are not typical, and following up with your healthcare provider can help (13).
How do I get rid of vaginal discharge?
Discharge is a part of the menstrual cycle. There is no need to get rid of the discharge that is typical for your body. If you feel like you are having an increased amount or the odor of your discharge is stronger than you expect, you can reach out to a healthcare provider for guidance (14). Washing with unscented soaps, not cleaning the inside of the vagina with a douche, and cleaning all menstrual cups, sex toys, diaphragms, as well as using condoms during sex can help prevent infections and keep the vaginal microorganisms in the common range (13).
When to contact your healthcare provider about vaginal discharge
There are times when changes in vaginal discharge are signs of infections or changes in hormones. Consider talking to your healthcare provider if you see any of the following (13):
Consistency: unusually thin, or thick and more textured/chunky
Color: gray, green, yellow, or brown
Volume: significant and unexpected in volume
Smell: fishy, metallic, or foul
Pain, itching, redness, or swelling of the vulva
If you feel embarrassed to talk to your healthcare provider about any changes in your body–remember that every body is different and only you know what is out of the ordinary for you.
Download Clue to track changes in your discharge and cervical mucus so you can get to know your body better.
This article was originally published on July 11, 2019.