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What's the Difference Between Vaginal Discharge, Arousal Fluid, and Cervical Mucus?

Cervical fluid, vaginal discharge, arousal fluid — are they all the same thing? Not really. Today, we're trying to analyze this matter and make a clear distinction between all the things that might come out of your vagina.
A creamy substance and a pad as symbols of vaginal discharge, arousal fluid, and cervical mucus

Vaginal discharge is a very normal, healthy occurrence for women. In fact, it serves a very important function in the female reproductive system. Normal vaginal discharge can appear clear to milky white and its function is to remove dead cells and bacteria. This helps to keep the vagina clean and free of infection.

The amount of discharge that you experience, the smell, as well as the viscosity (thickness) can be different from day to day. It can depend on the day of your menstrual cycle, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, if you haven’t bathed or if you are sexually aroused.

Cervical mucus is a clear liquid or gel-like fluid that is produced by the cervix. This fluid will change based on your menstrual cycle and if you are pregnant. It is very important to know what your cervical mucus looks like during different stages of your menstrual cycle, especially if you are trying to conceive. It plays a critical role by nourishing and protecting the sperm as they travel through the female reproductive system to the final destination-The egg. Let’s take a look at the different types of cervical mucus and why we experience these changes.

Mucus produced by the cervix is primarily controlled by the hormone estrogen. As you may already know, estrogen is also responsible for some of the changes you see during your menstrual cycle. Throughout your menstrual cycle, the cervical mucus changes to support the possibility of conception.

Post-menstruation cervical mucus — is the least amount you will experience during your cycle. This would be your baseline amount that is almost “dry”. As you get several days past your last menstruation, you will see an increase in the amount of mucus present when you look at your underwear or when you wipe yourself. Immediately after your period, this can appear as slightly red, yellow or white in color. It might also look a little cloudy and is somewhat sticky to the touch. As you approach ovulation, you may experience a change in the mucus to a “creamier” white appearance.

During ovulation — egg white cervical mucus is present. This is a type of cervical fluid that is produced by the cervix just before ovulation occurs. At this time of your menstrual cycle, estrogen levels are increasing rapidly and causing the cervix to increase the amount of mucus that it is producing. This is referred to as being “fertile quality” mucus. The appearance is clear and sticky, resembling egg whites.  When you experience this “fertile cervical fluid” and notice it, you might be able to determine the most fertile days of your cycle.

After ovulation — at this point in the cycle, the mucus quantity declines and it turns to a thick cervical mucus.

If you feel that you may be experiencing excessive cervical mucus or if your vaginal discharge changes in color, texture or has a foul odor, you should seek advice from a medical care professional.

An approximate depiction of cervical mucus or vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is a general term that can be used to describe fluid, good or bad, that comes out of your vagina. Cervical fluid, made by the cervix, travels through the vaginal canal and exits through the vagina. So, yes, it can be referred to as vaginal discharge. 

What is cervical fluid? The easiest way to explain cervical fluid is to describe how it feels. The baseline of vaginal “wetness” is what your body makes on a daily basis to keep the vagina healthy and clean. This typically feels “dry” and that nothing is really going on. This is also the typical amount of vaginal discharge that you experience right after your period. The level or amount of fluid present beyond this baseline, is what is considered cervical fluid. There are the different types of cervical fluid that we can explore.

None — this is your baseline. Dry to the touch or slightly damp. A small amount of fluid that evaporates quickly. Little or no appearance on your underwear. This is typically what you will see right after your period.

Sticky- Little or no feeling of fluid. May look slightly white or yellow, resembling school glue. On your fingers, it may be sticky, pasty or even crumbly. It may sit on top of the fabric on your underwear (not soak in). This is present between closer to the time of ovulation.

Egg White — this may make your vagina feel slippery or a little watery. To the touch, it will feel wet, sticky and elastic. If you place it between your index finger and thumb, then move them apart, it stretches. It will have the appearance of egg whites (clear to milky white). This discharge can make your underwear wetter feeling. This occurs during the ovulation phase of the menstrual cycle.

Watery — this can feel like water running out of your vagina. It will look watery and clear or slightly white like skim milk. On your fingers, it is very wet and slippery. This type can make much larger wet spots on your underwear that can even soak through. This occurs when you become sexually aroused. 

None of these vaginal discharges should have a foul odor. If you feel that the discharge you are experiencing has changed and you are concerned about it, it is best to seek professional medical advice. This could be a sign of a more serious issue related to an STI or another medical condition. It is also important to schedule regular annual appointments with your medical care provider to monitor your reproductive health and the health of your cervix.

Female arousal fluid occurs as a response to the human body sensing sexual desire or attraction. During this process, there is increased blood flow to genitalia including the vaginal walls which causes the fluid to pass through them. This is the main source of lubrication, which makes the vagina wet. This makes the tissues wet and provides lubrication, referred to as the first stage of arousal. 

The second stage of sexual arousal is the plateau. During this period the blood flow to the genitals, peaks and lower third of the vagina swells and becomes firm. This is referred to as introitus or orgasmic platform. With this, arousal fluid production increases, your clitoris pushes back toward the pelvic bone and your body prepares for orgasm. At this point, continuous stimulation is necessary to achieve an orgasm.

That brings us to the next phase of arousal — orgasm. An orgasm is an intense release of the sexual heightening from the previous stages. This pleasurable part of sexual arousal completes the cycle with rhythmic contractions of the genital muscles and increased female arousal discharge. This is referred to as a climax or “coming”. Women do not require a recovery phase like their male counterpart and with continued stimulation can achieve multiple orgasms.

4 Ice creams as representations of various types of vaginal discharge

Some women experience such a heightened sexual arousal that the genital contractions during orgasm cause arousal fluid to “squirt” from the vagina. This is sometimes referred to as a female ejaculation. A rather low number of women may actually appear to ejaculate arousal fluid from their vagina. This clear fluid is expelled from glands close to the urethra. These glands are known as the Skene's glands. 

The final stage of sexual arousal is called resolution. This is when the female body returns to its normal resting state. If you feel that you may have an underlying issue (physical or psychological) that prevents you from achieving orgasm, consult a medical professional for advice.

Han, L., Taub, R., & Jensen, J. T. (2017). Cervical mucus and contraception: what we know and what we don't. Contraception, 96(5), 310-321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2017.07.168

Puppo, V., & Puppo, G. (2015). Anatomy of sex: Revision of the new anatomical terms used for the clitoris and the female orgasm by sexologists. Clinical Anatomy, 28(3), 293-304. https://doi.org/10.1002/ca.22471

Salisbury, C. M., & Fisher, W. A. (2014). “Did you come?” A qualitative exploration of gender differences in beliefs, experiences, and concerns regarding female orgasm occurrence during heterosexual sexual interactions. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 616-631. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2013.838934

Whipple, B. (2015). Female Ejaculation, G Spot, A Spot, and Should We Be Looking for Spots? Current Sexual Health Reports, 7(2), 59-62. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11930-015-0041-2

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