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Illustration by Marta Pucci and Katrin Friedmann

Your Vagina

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:

  • Discharge is normal and often a sign of a healthy vagina

  • Cervical fluid makes up most of your discharge

  • Arousal fluid is created within the vagina as part of the sexual response cycle

  • Changes in consistency and color of discharge can indicate ovulation

What exactly is vaginal discharge? Simply put, it’s a term that encompasses any non-period fluid that leaves your vagina, like vaginal lubrication, arousal fluid, day-old sperm, and cervical fluid. Cervical fluid (aka cervical mucus) is one major component of vaginal discharge. Produced by the cells of your cervix, cervical fluid changes throughout your cycle from dry to wet, creamy to eggy, stretchy to sticky. 

Tracking your cervical fluid in Clue will give you a better indication of what hormonal changes and events are happening in your body at any given point. Understanding your own patterns can help you to know when your estrogen is rising, when ovulation has occurred, and when you might be able to skip the lube. Getting to know your vaginal discharge and cervical fluid cycle can also help you recognize when something may be off—from an infection to a hormonal issue.

Track patterns in your fluids with the Clue period tracker app.

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Why we have cervical fluid

For a pregnancy to happen, you need an egg, sperm, and fertile cervical fluid. Cervical fluid allows sperm to enter your uterus and reach your egg at ovulation.  

The cervix is the passageway between your lower and upper reproductive tract. It has glands in and around it which produce fluid. The consistency, opacity, and volume of this fluid changes along with your reproductive hormones. At different times of your cycle, cervical fluid changes to make it difficult, or easy for sperm to swim past your cervix into your uterus (1). Cervical fluid also protects sperm from the acidic environment of your vagina, and contains antibodies which help keep out unhealthy bacteria and viruses (2, 3).

How to find and feel your cervical fluid  

If you want to get to know your cervical fluid, try looking and feeling for changes in the consistency (pasty, slippery), amount, and color of the fluid, along with the sensation at your vaginal opening (wet or dry). 

You can use your fingers to feel for fluid at the entryway to your vagina, or at your cervix directly. Look for color and consistency. Feel for things like thickness, wetness, slipperiness (like soap) and stretchiness of the fluid. 

Another way is to look for fluid on your toilet paper. Cervical fluid should be visible on the paper and look different than your other vaginal moisture. Some people find this is less confusing than collecting fluid with their fingers because touching the vulva/vagina directly can make it harder to decipher cervical fluid from general lubrication.

If you want to get into it, you can also try dipping fluid-covered fingers into a glass of water. Cervical fluid will either stay stuck to your fingers or will sink to the bottom of the glass in a little clump. Vaginal moisture, on the other hand, will dissolve in the water. 

It will take some trial and error to find a method that works best for you. Keep in mind that it’s possible to confuse the ejaculate fluid or arousal fluid for cervical fluid, even the day after sex.

Changes in vaginal discharge: A timeline of cervical fluid across your cycle

1. Beginning of your cycle: menstruation

On day one of the cycle, the first day of your period, levels of both estrogen and progesterone are low. Since estrogen levels determine cervical fluid production, the cervix is not producing much fluid at all at this time (4). You wouldn’t be able to notice anyway, since you have your period. 

2. Just after your period: absent, dry

In the days just after your period, estrogen is rising (estrogen is produced by the follicle growing in your ovary as it prepares to release an egg at ovulation). Most won’t notice any cervical fluid for a couple of days, though, until estrogen is higher.

3. Leading up to ovulation: sticky, white, creamy, lotion-y

As estrogen levels rise, the cervix produces more fluid. At first, it might be thick and sticky or tacky, and become more wet and creamy, like a lotion. It may look whitish and cloudy, or even yellowish (especially if it’s dry on your underwear) (4). In a 28-day menstrual cycle, you may first notice this fluid around day 9 or 10 (1,4).

4. Around ovulation: eggy, wet, slippery, clear, stretchy

As ovulation approaches, much more cervical fluid is produced. Your vagina will likely start to feel much wetter, and fluid becomes more slippery as its water content rises. Over a couple of days, fluid becomes stretchier and clearer. As estrogen peaks, 1–2 days before ovulation, cervical fluid often resembles a raw eggwhite that you can stretch for inches between your thumb and finger (4,5). The amount of vaginal discharge at this time is different for everyone, but it can be up to 10–20 times more than other points in the cycle (6). “Peak” cervical fluid is about 95% water by weight, and 5% solids (electrolytes, organic compounds, and soluble proteins) (7). According to Google, people tend to call this type of cervical fluid "ovulation discharge". 

*Note that the presence of fertile cervical fluid can’t confirm ovulation for sure. Ovulation tests and basal body temperature tracking is more reliable for confirming ovulation. 

5. Luteal phase: sticky, dry

As soon as ovulation is over, vaginal discharge changes once again. Even before you notice a visual change, cervical fluid will already have become more fibrous and difficult for sperm to pass through (1). In the day or two after ovulation (the beginning of the luteal phase), the amount of fluid decreases quickly. Progesterone, the dominant hormone in this phase, acts to inhibit the secretion of fluid from the cervix’s epithelial cells (1). Fluid again may become sticky or tacky, or just dry and absent (1,4).

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.

To swim or stick—why cervical fluid changes

So why does your cervical fluid change so much? Each change serves its own function. Cervical fluid creates a fertile window that’s up to six days long—much longer than just the 12-24 hours when an egg can be fertilized after ovulation. Sperm that enters the vagina before ovulation can be suspended in this fluid, allowing it to survive longer in the otherwise acidic vaginal environment (1). Sperm can start to swim through creamy discharge from about day 9 of a 28-day cycle (1). When ovulation does occur, the stretchy egg-white fluid becomes the easiest fluid type for sperm to swim through (6). But swimming is never too easy—this fluid also acts to filter-in the “best” sperm. Slower swimmers get left behind, as do sperm with other motility or structural abnormalities (2,8).

After ovulation when the window of potential pregnancy has closed, cervical fluid becomes a barrier, preventing sperm from entering the upper reproductive tract. The progesterone produced by your ovary in your luteal phase acts similarly to the progestin in a progesterone-only birth control. It turns cervical fluid sparse and dense with solids, with little water, making it difficult for sperm to get past the cervix (9).

Signs of abnormal vaginal discharge

Changes in your cervical fluid pattern can signal a hormonal issue. This will usually be accompanied by changes in the length of your cycle and period. Discharge can also become abnormal if you have an infection. Signs of abnormal discharge include changes in:

  • 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 just different

Understanding your body can improve usage of non-hormonal birth control. Click here to learn more about Clue Birth Control".

This article was originally published on July 11, 2019.

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