Most women and people who menstruate have vaginal discharge, but did you know that cervical mucus, also known as cervical fluid or occasionally ovulation discharge, is integral to your cycle?
Initially, it might not seem that important to get into the nitty-gritty of discharge, but if you’re trying for a baby, it’s important to understand cervical mucus because it can often reveal when you’re ovulating and therefore at your most fertile.
Even if you’re not currently trying to conceive, getting to know what’s happening inside your body can be very empowering.
Every one of us is different when it comes to the type, amount, and texture of discharge and cervical fluid we produce, so knowing what’s healthy for you and your cycle can be reassuring. You’ll also be more prepared to look for changes in your discharge (maybe color or smell) that could signal that something’s not quite right.
That said, cervical mucus isn’t necessarily something you learn about at school, so you can be forgiven for not knowing much about it. We spoke with Dr. Jennifer Boyle, obstetrician and gynecologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts, US, to help fill in the blanks.
What is cervical mucus? Is it the same as discharge?
First up, a bit of a biology lesson. Vaginal discharge is a catchall term for everything your vagina produces throughout your cycle. And it has a pretty important function: to keep your vagina healthy by removing dead cells and bacteria. You might notice that the amount, texture, and color (typically clear to milky white) of your discharge changes throughout the month. This is completely normal.
Think of cervical mucus as just one ingredient that makes up your discharge. As its name suggests, this fluid comes from the glands in and around the cervix, rather than the vagina itself — but it has an equally important role to play.
The cervix is a small but mighty, doughnut-shaped part of your reproductive system, “made up of two types of cells,” explains Dr. Boyle. Usually around an inch (2.5 cm) long, it joins the top of your vagina to the lower part of your uterus. “The outside part of the cervix is covered by ‘squamous cells’ that are like skin and the vagina. The inside part of the cervix is made up of ‘glandular cells,’ and these produce cervical mucus,” says Dr. Boyle. “This is different than the secretions, or discharge, of the vagina.”
So what’s the mucus for? “The main role of cervical mucus is to help transport sperm into the uterus and then up to the tubes around the time of ovulation. It then provides a protective barrier after ovulation to keep things from getting inside the uterus,” explains Dr. Boyle. “The appearance and amount of cervical mucus changes throughout your cycle. In the first week after your period [when you’re not in your fertile window], there is not much cervical mucus at all.” Clever, eh?